Apocalypse Now

A man I know was rescued from one of the top floors of the Taj Mahal Hotel some time on Wednesday or Thursday. He is unhurt, according to the report I read in the New York Times, and going by the photo of him surrounded by Indian firefighters that has been circulating among the members of the group we both sing in.

The images of smoke and flames that leapt from the graceful, Indo-Victorian arches of the hotel were frightening enough to me; I can hardly imagine how my friend felt as he barricaded his hotel room door with the bureau. And I must say he looks surprisingly composed in the photo in the Times.

But then we have all gotten better at staying composed during times of crisis, haven’t we? We managed to stay composed enough to shop on the day after Thanksgiving, despite an epochal financial crisis, just as we managed to shop after 9-11. And most of us have been successfully inoculated from two wars that someone else’s children are fighting for us: see how composed we are after more than five years of war.

So composed are we that few people are worried these days by a passage in the Bible that threatens nothing worse than a darkened sun and moon (we’ve all seen eclipses by now), or stars falling from the sky, or the powers of heaven shaken (whatever they may be). In the Gospel we hear Jesus telling about an Apocalypse-Not-Yet, but we have been living with Apocalypse-Now since before the movie even came out. And the fires of the Taj must have amounted to a tiny Apocalypse for my friend and thousands of others, and the hundreds now dead, and the soldiers and firefighters and police who responded.

Today marks the beginning of a new church year. And the church has adopted a curious habit of peering over the horizons of time to the end of all things, as she begins each new year. We have no countdown, no new year’s eve celebrations. For the church’s countdown, we are reminded, is not just to the next page of the calendar, but to the end of all time, the judgment of all things, heaven and earth passing away. And we do not count down, we cannot count down, because we have no idea when it will be. We have tried to read the signs, as Jesus says we ought, but we prove to be inept at it, and frankly, we are skeptical that he knew what he was talking about.

Jesus’ discussions of apocalypse are among the most mystifying passages of the scriptures. But why should they be when a man I know who was singing a show tune with me three weeks ago, was delivered from his own little Apocalypse-Now by the mercies of a Mumbai fire brigade?

The grenades of Afghanistan, the IEDs of Iraq, the riot police of Bangkok, the refugees of the Congo, the Janjaweed of Darfur, the slain policemen of Philadelphia, the foreclosures of so many home-loans, the diagnoses that spell nothing but tears, the devastation of hurricanes, the ravages of forest fires, the melting of arctic ice, the warming of the planet – are these not all little apocalypses: little glimpses beyond the usual horizons of time that seem to signal something bigger and more frightening than just another year gone by?

We hear Jesus saying, “Keep awake!” But we suspect that he did not know how long the night of watching would be. And I know people who cannot sleep because their own little apocalypses keep them awake – and it does not seem to help them to be deprived of sleep.

I wonder if the visions of the prophets kept them awake; if they were scrawled down on scraps of paper in the middle of the night when sleep would not come again, and visions of apocalypse raced across their minds. I wonder if it was a sleepless night when Isaiah pleaded with God – who had showed him so much, but who remained out of sight while Israel suffered in exile:

Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down! the way you did in olden days to show the world that you were in charge, and the nations would tremble at your presence! Oh that you would just do something!

The prophet wants to be able to read the signs in the sky: the darkened sun and moon, the falling stars, the powers of heaven shaken. These portents would be proof for him at least that God was at work, that some awesome, if frightening, new moment in time was approaching. And as he gazes, wide awake, out into the cosmos, searching for the signs of the almighty hand toying with the universe, he feels instead the gentle pressure of fingertips in the small of his back, or a palm pressing down on his chest hard enough to make him take a deep breath; he feels the stiff muscles of his shoulders kneaded by the hand whose attention seems (at the moment at least) not to be turned to the vast universe, but to him.

“O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.”

What does it feel like to look for the hand of God at work in the awesome expanse of the universe and discover that he is at work on you, that your life is being molded and shaped by God’s hand, that God is deeply involved with and intimately interested in you?

Not to be flip, but I think that if I were barricaded in my hotel room while armed gunmen roamed the halls and flames leapt from the windows, I would be much more interested in a God who would hold me in the palm of his hand than in a God who was rearranging the stars. And the revelation that God’s hand shapes each of our lives is the counterpoint to the expectation that he also directs the forces of the universe; just as fellowship with his incarnate Son is the counterpoint to the worship of a transcendent Lord.

But it is hard for us to accept that we are the clay and God is our potter because that means we have to accept that we are not in control of everything. And it’s hard for us to accept that for the most part we are unfinished work while we live this life, and therefore prone to be re-shaped, refashioned, kneaded, twisted, pounded down, built back up.

Why does God treat us this way? Can the clay really ever know what the potter has in mind for it? Or could it guess what beauty or what usefulness it is destined for while it is being formed?

But clay never has to learn to trust its potter the way we must learn to trust God. And all these little apocalypses of our own lives and of our world put us right on the edge of trust in God – likely to go one way or the other. I imagine it’s hard to be agnostic when your heart is pounding and you are covered in sweat, your back pressed up against the bureau that you have heaved over against the door to keep the gunmen out. I don’t mean to suggest that God arranges these little apocalypses with the purpose of trying our trust in him, but I do think they end up having that effect.

And we have gotten so good at searching for meaning, so adept at understanding big things, so talented at unlocking deep, vast secrets that it is hard for us to see at moments like these that the work of God’s hand may be going on deep inside of us: in the small of our backs, or in the tension of our shoulders, or even in our shortened, shallowed breath, and our weakened, pathetic bodies as we begin to discover that no piece of pottery lasts for ever.

All of which may help explain why it is that we feel so inclined to pray for peace as a new year comes to us, and as we stand on our tippy-toes to peer over the horizons of time to try to see if the end is near – hoping that it is not, but sometimes feeling that the signs are awfully foreboding. We would settle for an inner peace that kept us centered, calm, somehow safe through all the little apocalypses that are going on around us; even as we hope for that greater peace that we suspect only God can accomplish and we wonder why he is so slow about it. Oh that he would take charge again and make something happen!

Scan the heavens, the earth, the pages of the papers for signs of God’s peace coming into the world and our lives. The signs are hard to see and even harder to read. Shout out our prayers for peace, and our frustration when those prayers come echoing back, apparently un-answered. Look across the horizon of time to see if God’s plan is yet view, if his peace is glowing yonder with the light of dawn. By all means, stay awake and watch for this coming, so long promised.

But in your watching, should you grow faint or bored or disillusioned, before you give up, stop and see if there is not the slightest hint of the gentle press of fingers in the small of your back, easing you, ever so slightly, of your burden. Or is there the weight of a hand on your chest, not pushing, just pressing hard enough to feel your heart race, to calm it, and to steady your breath? Or does he have you by the shoulders, stopping you in your tracks and trying, trying to get you to relax, to let go of the tension you insist on carrying in your muscles and in your bones?

And is he trying to re-shape you and me? Is he trying to mold us into people that more closely resemble his original design, his own image? Is he trying to fashion us into that beautiful thing that we can become when we stop trying to control everything?

And is that what we will look like beyond the horizons of time, when he has made all things perfect, all things new?

O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

We are all your people.

Pray, give us peace, at this moment, in each of our lives, and throughout the world. Give us peace in this new year. We are the clay and you are our potter. We are all your people. We are all your people. We are all you people.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Advent Sunday, 30 November 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on December 1, 2008 .