Long ago I made a trip across Chile. Staying in a hotel in Santiago I was awakened by a sudden awareness that everything in the room was moving. Startled by this unexpected event, and only used to mild and infrequent UK earthquakes, I opened the door anticipating alarmed guests pouring out of their rooms. The corridor was empty; the shuddering stopped; the local TV made hardly a mention of the tremor.
As anyone watching the BBC documentary Following the Science? will appreciate, predicting approaching danger of global proportions isn’t easy. Especially when decisions need to be taken before the full force of an event is clear. Yet if you wait for the in-your-face evidence, it’s a sure sign that you’ve left it too late. In humanity’s history apocalyptic events overtake us rapidly, and our inability to exert control and mastery is laid bare.
In the 1980s I studied theology and English Literature at the University of Hull. It was a combination I’d recommend as there’s a very natural traffic between the two – not least in poetry. I recall reading WB Yeats’s The Second Coming while looking out over the wolds from the top floor of the Brynmor Jones library. Of the various apocalyptic prospects during my life there have been the Cold War; Climate Change; and now Coronavirus. Writing about the Yeats poem in the context of the current pandemic, Dorian Linskey is right that world-ending prospects aren’t infrequent. The real one will be unique in leaving a complete absence of literature.
That’s why it is a poem for 1919 and 1939 and 1968 and 1979 and 2001 and 2016 and today and tomorrow. Things fall apart, over and over again, yet the beast never quite reaches Bethlehem.Dorian Lynskey, ‘Things fall apart’: the apocalyptic appeal of WB Yeats’s The Second Coming The Guardian 30 May 2020
Today is the final Sunday in the Church’s liturgical year. For centuries the Collect read on this Sunday has begun with the request to be ‘stirred up’. It is a reminder that as we plod on from day-to-day we risk getting lost in detail and weakening our sense of purpose about what life is for. The petition to be stirred concerns our ‘will’, the engine of desire that drives us for good or ill. When our will rests in God, Jesus suggests that we’ll remain unshaken even by those events which may seem life-changing. Jesus takes a measured view of Millenarianism. He pictures those who follow his teaching as the calm within the storm; the stable points of hope in a landscape of panic and pessimism.
For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs… Beware, keep alert for you do not know when the time will come.Mark 13: verse 8 and verse 33 (NRVS)
A week today the Church’s new year commences with Advent Sunday. Often the themes of Advent are lost in the run-up to Christmas. In parishes there are nativity plays, toy services, Christingles and more: but not this year. As we continue to live in a time of pandemic the serious themes of the season deserve our full attention. Traditionally these are death; judgement; heaven and hell. York Minster is running four online reflections with excellent speakers starting at 3 pm on 26 November. The first contributor is Professor John Swinton, who will be introducing a discussion about death. Each talk is linked to a panel of the Great East Window, which portrays images based on texts from the Book of Revelation.
It appears that apocalypses come and go. Each generation can feel that it teeters on the edge of fragmentation – only to survive. In the Gospels Jesus warns his followers against getting too eager about the prospect. These things will happen, until the final and decisive time arrives. As we continue to journey through adversity it’s important not to confuse the temporary with the ultimate.
As we approach Advent there is an opportunity to engage afresh with the theme of God’s will for the world. In the book of Micah this requires mortals ‘to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’. It is a theme reiterated in the New Testament and lies within the family prayer of the faithful: ‘your will be done’. A call to action and a way of living which can change the world if we have the grace and generosity to live as things will be – not only as they are. On a Sunday when we ask for our wills to be reanimated it is a call to be stirred, not shaken, in apocalyptic times.
(Heading image by Gerd Altmann)