I fear my Christian tradition has not done enough teaching and wondering about what it means to live in an apocalyptic time. The Left Behind series and some religious sects would have us believe that the apocalypse is a cosmic warning that God has had enough. Time’s up, clear the board! Sheep and goats are separated and you’d better hope you’re a sheep. Quick, solve the mystery of salvation and get your act together before the day of judgment comes.
But in Mark 13, Jesus uses apocalyptic language to remind the people
that earthly powers do not last forever,
that false prophets will use fear and rumors to distract from the truth,
that atrocities will continue to tear at this world
and he does not describe these things as signs of the end times,
but instead calls it “the beginning of the birth pangs”.
|A mural at the Hospital de Jesus in Mexico City depicting a partera, or midwife, delivering a baby.|
My first child was born almost eight years ago, but my body can still feel the two days of back labor pain that broke me. I thought I was going to die and couldn’t imagine a future in which he had arrived and I was no longer screaming! I was trapped in my head for hours, until I surrendered to my body's patient whispers:
Something is ending and beginning at the same time.
This is terrible pain and breaking and sacrifice.
You are home to miraculous instinct and strength.
You are dying and rising all at once.
This is apocalyptic.
Apocalypse is Greek for revealing, peeling back, uncovering, showing what’s been hiding beneath.
America is living in an apocalyptic age. White supremacy and sexual assault are not new. They are just being uncovered in a culture that would like to believe it is beyond these things, it has already defeated these things, or (at the very least) can hide these things because they have become small and manageable.
If we have been comfortable, useful, familiar with the way things have been, the revealing is not so welcome. It’s hard to see what’s been hidden because it was tucked away very much on purpose. So apocalyptic talk can threaten those of us who have been holding some power and privilege. Our first instinct can be to put a lid on what is showing, the mess of other truths that will disrupt our preferred narrative. And a lid might hold for a time.
But Jesus makes it clear: God is in the business of revealing what’s been hidden, of giving voice to the voiceless, of peeling back the veneer to show what’s real. And so the lid won’t hold forever.
When the disciples marvel at the large stones and mighty stature of the temple, Jesus takes a moment to point out how often we marvel at things that don’t really matter, how quickly we are impressed by pomp and posture.
Jesus is not in the mood to wonder at the temple’s grandeur. He’s spent the last several scenes being tested by religious officials and being ignored when he foretells his own suffering and death. He’s had his authority questioned and his prophecies shushed and even his own disciples are missing the point.
Jesus is still grieving the scene at the end of chapter twelve, when the faith community left the widow behind and penniless. Meanwhile, the disciples have moved on to gawking at architecture like tourists.
Our memories are short for the sake of self-preservation. When it is too painful to recall the fullness of our history, the fragility of our human condition, the evil we have conjured and justified, we avoid it. We hide it. We hope we can keep a lid on it.
We will ourselves into believing the large stones are strong, the systems work and the cheap compromises count toward peace because believing these false prophecies doesn’t hurt like the longer, more complicated truth.
The temple, however lovely and strong, is not eternal and will fall again. Nations rise, empires fall. The pot always bubbles over and the whole truth comes out. Powers clash in search of protection, hope and change. Jesus knows we forget how familiar this is, how we grow attached to that which is comfortable and familiar so that - when it is destroyed, we fall prey to fear and despair.
But Jesus is here - on earth, in Jerusalem - to interrupt that pattern. He warns the disciples to marvel beyond the large stones of human accomplishment, to resist the false prophets of personal gain, fear-mongering, denial and despair. Jesus is here to take the lid off the pot - to face our shame, our hate, our darkness, our power corrupted! These are the things worthy of a crumbling destruction, the things God has been hungry to put to death.
There will be wars and earthquakes and famines because we will resist being seen, being uncovered, being revealed for what we love and protect. There will be signs that we need saving, that our mortal marvels last only for a time.
But this is not the end, Jesus says. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
It is born by miraculous instinct and strength.
Terrible pain and breaking and sacrifice.
Miraculous instinct and strength.
Dying and rising all at once.
We are living in an apocalyptic age.
God is peeling back the surface to reveal what we love and protect - not for the sake of damnation or ending, but because something new is already being labored, already breaking into the world. It is worthy of our love and marvel, whatever it is. Because it comes from the truth that cannot remain hidden. It comes from a God who reveals life when we thought we were dying, hope when despair was winning, curiosity and trust usurp fear and shame.
Valarie Kaur (Sikh American Civil Rights Activist)
The mother and me asks what if? What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault? What if they are whispering in our ears “You are brave”? What if this is our nation’s greatest transition?
What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe. And then? Push. Because if we don’t breathe we will die. If we don’t push we will die.
So we breathe. And we push. We are disciples of Christ, children of an incarnational God who knows both the tomb and the womb. We are prophets of beginnings born from endings, we are the mortals who are called to reveal what is inconvenient, confusing, messy, and more fully true about both our humanity and the God who is never finished loving our humanity.
Breathe and push, my friends. Do not be side tracked by temporary marvels or false prophets. Do not wring your hands when the earth shudders with suffering. This is the call. To breathe and push and be fully present in this change. Because it is the miraculous instinct and strength born of heaven, born of Christ, born of the Church still beginning, still being revealed.