Finding Comfort in Apocalypse

Matthew 24:36-44

“When hinges creak in doorless chambers, and strange and frightening sounds echo through the halls; whenever candle lights flicker where the air is deathly still—that is the time when ghosts are present, practicing their terror with ghoulish delight!”

So begins one of my favorite attractions at Disneyland: The Haunted Mansion.

We’ve entered a room through a doorway akin to a mouth, gaping, where we now are packed in tightly with loved ones and strangers—I don’t know, maybe something like fifty of us.  The closed doorway has recently shut all manner of sunlight out; our eyes are still adjusting to the dimness.

Our host’s voice comes to us from somewhere overhead, inviting us to look upward.  There we see eight family portraits lining the upper walls of this octagonal room.  Then, as the voice continues, the room’s floor starts descending; and the portraits extend, revealing that not all things are as they seem.  A nice-looking girl with a parasol, for instance, is now seen to be balancing precariously on a tightrope above a pit filled with hungry alligators!

Finally, as the family scenes reach their full length and after a loud scream, the voice of our ghost-host concludes.  We will take a tour of this haunted mansion via a three-passenger conveyor car.  But watch out, we are warned!  A ghost or a zombie may ride along with us at any moment.

All this, of course, is simply an introduction to the tour itself.  But we don’t necessarily see it that way—as an introduction—especially if it’s our first time.  Rather, it’s a part of the overall experience.  We find it somewhat frightening, sure; but we also take a certain comfort in that, deep down, at the bottom of it all, we know it isn’t actually real.

Today’s Gospel passage is our introduction to the Church year.  And like the introduction to Disneyland’s The Haunted Mansion, some things about the passage may actually frighten us—especially if this is your first cognizant experience of it.

Listen to these words again, and let them sink in a bit:

  • For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
  • They knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
  • Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.
  • Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

This is frightening.  There’s a sense of apocalypse here, isn’t there?  Apocalypse: the end of the world as we know it.  That fires the imagination, doesn’t it?  What if, we ask?  What would things be like if there actually were an apocalypse in our lifetime?

But unlike Disneyland’s attraction, where we draw a certain comfort from knowing that deep down it isn’t actually real, in this case of the Gospel we know it is real.  Christ will come again!  And that will mean the end of the world as we know it.  And that’s frightening!

So let’s pause for a moment and consider this idea of apocalypse.  We humans seem to have a certain fascination with it.  For, at the same time, the idea of apocalypse both fires the imagination and frightens us.

Take popular media.  Ever heard of the TV show The Walking Dead?  It’s all about zombies roaming the earth after an apocalyptic event and the humans who struggle to survive.  Or how about the film Warm Bodies?  It’s a comedy about a zombie boy and a human girl who fall in love in a post-apocalyptic world—based loosely on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Now my gut instinct is to laugh at this idea.  A zombie apocalypse?  Pshaw!  Nevertheless, I did a little research, just to see how far back we can actually trace this idea of zombies and their connection to apocalypse.

To qualify, I used the Christian idea that the human person is the union of body and spirit.  When this union is severed, there are unusual results.  A spirit without a body is a ghost.  On the other hand, an animate human body without a spirit—that’s how I define zombie.

And wouldn’t you know?  According to this definition, zombies are there in that oldest of ancient texts, The Epic of Gilgamesh, when the god Anu vows to open the gates of the netherworld and unleash zombies to satisfy his daughter Ishtar’s anger.  They’re also there in the Bible.  Yeah!  In Zechariah 14:12 and Isaiah 26:19-20, the people of Jerusalem are told to hide themselves from a plague of walking corpses.

The point I’m trying to make here is that this idea of apocalypse is nothing new.  It was around in ancient times.  It is around today.  And—guess what?—it was around in Jesus’s day.  Yes, the idea of apocalypse captivated the minds of the ancient Mediterranean peoples too—whether in a Jewish sect like the Qumran community or the Roman aristocracy.

Will there actually be zombies in the Day of the Lord?  We don’t know, truth be told.  But our imagination, our fascination with the idea, and out fright have made room for it.

So, on the one hand, Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel passage are somewhat frightening, for they suggest apocalypse.  But, on the other hand, they are comforting.

They are comforting, not because they are like the Disneyland ride: unreal; but because there is, at the bottom of it all, a greater reality than what we know.  That greater reality is the kingdom of heaven, where we will end up in our liturgical readings fifty-one weeks from today.

The kingdom of heaven is governed by a loving and other-serving King.  Exactly what it will look like and exactly how things will come about—these details are unknown, sure!  And in these uncertain details we might become anxious, perhaps even frightened.  But the big picture is that God is good and loving; we therefore have nothing to fear.  This is real comfort.

But they are comforting words too because they are not just about the end of the world, but about today.  We don’t need to be sweating about the details of what is to come, whether there will be zombies or a rapture or whatever.  Today’s Gospel passage tells us how to live—today!  Whether or not we will experience Jesus’s second coming in our lifetime!

“But understand this,” it says: “if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.”

How do you protect yourself from a thief?  It takes some thought and preparation: a security system, maybe some insurance, locks on doors and windows.  But then what?  You go on living your daily life.  Perhaps a thief will come someday and rob you of your goods.  Or maybe not.  You don’t know!  And you definitely shouldn’t spend your daily life fretting over it.

That’s life in Christ.  Think about that life; and prepare for it.  Trust Jesus as your savior and Lord.  Be baptized.  Reconcile yourself to your brothers and sisters.  Partake at the Lord’s Table with the saints.  But then what?  Carry on with daily life—as people did in the days of Noah.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: