Advent, the beginning of the Church's year, is not a time of preparation for Christmas until Dec. 17.
Until then, the season’s liturgical focus, regardless of Christmas decorations, sales, TV specials and music, is upon portents of the end. And the liturgical year will end next November as it begins — with a focus on the gospel descriptions of the apocalypse.
So, the year and all that happens and all we reflect upon during it is bracketed by descriptions and warnings of disaster. Even the Bible ends with a book called Apocalypse.
Apocalyptic scripture speaks of stars falling from the sky, earthquakes, wars and rumors of wars, disease, strife, the variously interpreted “four horsemen” and such.
In other words, apart from the falling stars, it is a collection of what we might consider the daily news. And, in fact, the daily news lately talks of asteroids crossing Earth’s orbit and the need to protect ourselves from them lest we one day face a repeat of the dinosaurs’ celestial catastrophe instead of the one we are creating ourselves.
Climate change may have passed the tipping point where humankind can no longer do anything except try to endure and ameliorate its effects while hoping that the impending extinctions do not include ourselves.
Christians and other religious minorities are persecuted in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere
The Covid pandemic continues and the Greek alphabet may run out of letters to name its variants.
Nuclear weapons proliferate in volatile areas and societies.
Here in Asia, there is saber rattling from China, North Korea, Russia and the United States, confrontations on the India-Pakistan border, military violence in Myanmar and threats to civil society in Hong Kong and Thailand.
Corruption and injustice govern nations and economies.
Christians and other religious minorities are persecuted in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere.
And Asia is not the only place where bad news is much of the news. There are political tensions on every continent except, perhaps, Antarctica where climate change is sufficiently disastrous.
Even the Catholic Church is experiencing an apocalyptic blow, perhaps the greatest to the institution since the Reformation, as abuse scandals, clueless management, departing youth, irrelevance and general malaise suck enthusiasm and devotion from the community.
Lately, the “apocalyptic” has moved beyond its scriptural origins to become a genre of movies, manga, novels and such that show a post-nuclear or post-climate-disaster dystopia of the sort famously described by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century.
“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry ... no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
As if all that were not enough reason to think we live in apocalyptic times, there are also our personal apocalypses. Plans fail. Trust is betrayed. Hopes are thwarted. Relationships end. Poverty threatens. Loneliness strangles joy. Faith fails. Sickness of body, mind and spirit assaults. Death awaits. These do not become news except in our personal worlds, yet our lives can seem a chronic apocalypse.
Apocalyptic scripture is always a promise uncovering the hidden presence and power of God to turn every Cross into a Resurrection
But there is a more basic meaning to the word "apocalypse," one that more accurately tells us what it all means.
The word comes from two Greek words that combined mean “from cover.” An apocalypse uncovers a secret hidden under, behind or within the disasters it recounts. That is the reason that the New Testament book called Apocalypse in the original Greek is called Revelation in English.
The apocalyptic secret is that God is not ignorant of what we face. God is aware, and shall somehow use the crises we face to show love overcoming fear, overcoming evil. Apocalyptic scripture is always a promise uncovering the hidden presence and power of God to turn every Cross into a Resurrection.
Most of us (all of us?) have ideas about how the universe, and especially our part of it, should run. Much of our prayer and piety is directed towards informing God of our good ideas and wishes.
As we go through this year, we will face many crises as a world, as nations, as societies, as families and as individuals. At the very least, we are likely to learn yet more of the Greek alphabet.
Those crises and disasters shall be real, not mere plot devices in the story of the universe. They shall be painful. They shall be crosses. Things shall not go as we wish, as we wish God would wish.
But, the year shall end as it has begun, uncovering in the midst of woes the good news that in the Cross God has taught us that disaster is not distance between us and God, but an unlikely path to God’s peace.