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Breath of the Spirit Reflection: Apocalypse, Forgiveness, and Letting Go

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It is easy to wonder what these dire warnings of the end times have to do with us. How do predictions of the world’s end – over which we have no control – speak to our lives? Perhaps realizing that the meaning of apocalypse is rooted in uncovering, revealing the truth in the process of world events. Today’s reflection sees our current climate crisis as apocalyptic in that sense. Our current climate struggles can show us the way to greater love if we have eyes to see. As usual, when Jesus is involved, this uncovering is also rooted in forgiveness.

November 14, 2021: the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time 
Daniel 12:1-3 
Psalm 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11 
Hebrews 10:11-14, 18 
Mark 13:24-32 

A reflection by John Falcone 

For many of us, “The End is near!” has become something of a cliché. Who has not seen a disaster movie with a wild-eyed street preacher wearing a “The End is Near” sandwich board, ironically unaware that space aliens, or a super-volcano, or an engineered virus, is about to bring an actual world-ending catastrophe down on his head? 

In this week’s Gospel, Jesus insists that the end really is near. How should we interpret this warning? Some people read Jesus’ warning existentially – as a moral and personal summons. In this way of thinking, Biblical warnings about the end of the world should motivate us to consider our personal end. Each of us has a limited time here on earth; what are we going to do with it? Will we choose faith, hope, and love; or will we dither until it’s too late? Others read Jesus’ warning historical-critically – as a challenge to our naïveté and blind faith. In this way of thinking, Jesus and the first-century believers thought God would end this material world in a matter of years, and create a new, better one in its place. We recognize the literal incorrectness of that belief, but we believe the spiritual principles that emerge from that belief remain relevant. 

In some ways, Jesus was not incorrect. Within 40 years of his final visit to Jerusalem – “before this generation has passed away” (Mk 13:28) – Israel’s whole way of life had been erased. Long-running tensions between Jews and non-Jews finally boiled over in the years 66-73 C. E. Roman legions marched on Galilee and Judea, wiping out towns and villages, enslaving whole populations, burning Jerusalem to the ground. Looking back, Jesus’ prophecy seems more like political commentary. The end of their world really was near. 

Perhaps this present moment calls us to read Jesus’ warning apocalyptically – as an unveiling of manifest truths. The word “apocalypse” literally means “removing the cover from what was covered up.” In this way of thinking, Jesus blows the whistle on business-as-usual and announces the time of refusing-to-look has come to an end. 

Could today be our climate apocalypse? We’ve all heard the science. Every year now, we need the equivalent of 1.79 Earths to provide all our resources and absorb all our waste. This generation will not pass away before global temperatures exceed 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels. If temperatures exceed +2˚C (= 20 more years at present rates of carbon emission), floods and famines, pandemics, and desertification will bring brutal suffering to most of humanity. Can liberal democracy survive such catastrophes? Who will the demagogues target? What of the poor? 

In the face of apocalypse – in the face of reality uncovered – this week’s Scriptures ask us to trust in God’s love. It’s not a love whose timings or outcomes we can control – “nobody knows the day or the hour” (Mk 13:32). But neither is it a love that asks us to do nothing – instead, it rewards “the wise” and “the leaders of justice” (Dan 12:3). It’s a love that works through sacrifice and forgiveness, especially the “one sacrifice” of Jesus (Heb 10:14, 18). 

If there’s anything distinctive about Jesus’ theology, it’s the way he marries apocalypse and forgiveness. Jesus told them, “This is how you should pray: Our [God] in heaven, reveal who you are. Set the world right. … Forgive us, and keep us forgiving each other” (see The Message translation of Mt 6:9-12). Forgiveness is a key message of Jesus, and a key part of the Reign of God. In the Bible, “forgiveness” does not just mean “deciding not to punish;” it also conveys a strong sense of “letting go.” The New Testament Greek word for forgiveness is aphíëmi: “to release, to let go, to leave behind.” 

LGBTQ+ people and our friends, family, and allies are familiar with this aspect of forgiveness. We’ve had to let go of comfortable and familiar identities to find love, health, and happiness. We’ve had to stop skirting reality, in order to seek fullness of life. The more we acknowledge reality, the more we can let go of its toxicity, and God’s love can free us. “Jesus called out in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ And Lazarus came out of the tomb. … Then Jesus said, ‘Untie him and aphíëmi [trans:] let him go on his way.’” (Jn 11:43-44).  

As the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference comes to an end, what are we called to let go and leave behind, so that we can forgive, be forgiven, and seek fullness in life? According to economist Daniel Cohen, theologian Bob Stivers, and many others, it might be the “religion of growth.” Ever since the Great Depression, the US government has measured prosperity in terms of “economic growth.” During the 2020 election, Donald Trump promised to grow the economy by at least 4% every year. Joe Biden stresses how his policies favor growth in the green and middle-class sectors of the US economy. But what if “growth” itself is the real problem? Some activists, economists, and theologians have started talking about degrowth as a socio-economic and spiritual goal. Degrowth means working fewer hours and spending more time with each other. It means traveling less frequently. It means tending our local parks and making links with our physical neighbors. It means passing policies that increase income equality while redirecting service and industry: away from quantity and towards greater quality, away from junk, towards durables and renewables. It means questioning the imaginary link between “more” and “better” – be that in love, politics, work, leisure, or life. (To learn more, click degrowth in Wikipedia, or this article on Pope Francis and the degrowth movement.) 

The End really is near. Our current American ways of life are unsustainable. If we let go of them, Jesus has shown us how to turn back to God and how to turn to each other. We can’t save the old ways (Do we really want to?). But we can help save each other, and the world yet to come.  

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John P. Falcone is a practical theologian, religious educator, and a practitioner of Theatre of the Oppressed (PhD, Boston College). He has been a Dignity member for more than 20 years with close links to Dignity NY, where he met his husband Matias Wibowo in 2005. He is currently Theologian-in-Residence at St. Matthew’s Bethnal Green (Church of England) in London’s East End.