With a predictable regularity guests at our Retreat House ask me whether we are living in the end times. Although I realize this has been a perennial preoccupation and fear in every era, I am in no position to know. I always repeat what Jesus himself said: only the Father knows.
Even without any motivation to speculate on the subject, today’s Solemnity and the approaching season of Advent invite me to consider what the “end” might mean.
As creatures, each of us human beings are bound by a termination. This life we live here and now has a terminus; it will finish. My body will stop functioning and my vitality disappear. Even before arriving at that point, the continuity of my existence is hardly seamless. I can look back on the fears of my childhood, as if looking at a stranger’s life. The embarrassments of adolescence make me laugh as if I’m watching an unknown comedian in a sit-com. There have already been many endings in my life.
On a deeper level, each of our human lives has an end, in the sense of a goal, a potential to be fulfilled. Our faith teaches that we have a collective or corporate end for which we were created, but which we could stymie or, at least, interrupt.
When I listen to today’s Gospel without that kind of end in mind, can’t some of the Beatitudes be discouraging or even depressing? To mourn, to be poor, to hunger or thirst, for example—how encouraging is that? But when I keep the end in view, haven’t we all lived through enough terminations, changes and transformations in our lives to appreciate that the depth of our response can correspond to the prodigal generosity of God’s grace? Haven’t we been prepared by poverty, hunger or mourning? Don’t the strictures of single-heartedness, the demands of mercy or the strain of peacemaking blossom into the best we could be?
I believe the saints are people who have learned the humility to embrace all the endings of our little worlds that shape each life; have allowed Providence to excavate, through the blessings and disappointments of life, the interiority vast enough to be filled by God’s life; have been polished by the understandings and misunderstandings of human relations to a transparency allowing God’s light and energy to illumine the lives around them. Most important of all, their inconsistencies and flaws demonstrate how much God loves us for who we are, not what we’ve merited by good behavior.
We may sweat and exert effort but it’s God who works in us. Is that what the end of our world—and the beginning of God’s Kingdom—really means?