At the end of the world, I will be complete.
One of the most dazzling meteor showers in decades is occurring above our heads as I speak: the Leonids, over a thousand meteors an hour can be seen in the clear night sky---meaning you’ll have to leave the city’s light pollution if you want to experience what the end of the world might look like.
Or maybe like me, you are drawn to apocalyptic movies like Armageddon, or the Day after Tomorrow or Interstellar, which use all the best Hollywood special effects to show us how the world as we know it will be destroyed by a dying sun, unrecoverable climate changes, nuclear oblivion. Or a Big Bang reversal of the expansion of the universe, where everything that is or ever was is swallowed up into an unimaginably gigantic black hole from whence it all once came.
Some of us may have felt the end was near on Friday, when what we believed was a little dusting of snow turned the city into a hellion mess of fallen trees, paralyzed traffic and canceled events.
And for our sisters and brothers in California, enduring the horrifying fires that have already taken 71 lives and thousands upon thousands of homes: is there any doubt of a real Armageddon in our midst?
Or perhaps you counted yourself among those who felt the sky was falling on election night, no matter which party you favored.
And surely there are those among us in this room who are ready right now to play the gaunt visionary, holding up the warning sign on 23rd Street that our culture is headed for doom: consider our Godlessness, our easy profanities, our addiction to consume everything—technology, pornography, artisanal food---our failure to see the Christ who walks among us in the poor and the forgotten and the homeless.
The end is near, darkness is descending, and not just because we are approaching the winter solstice.
It happens to each one of us, doesn’t it? Don’t we all have those days when it seems like our world is ending, darkness descending?
One day not long ago, I was there. I went to my room, turned off the lights, sat down at my desk and put my head and arms on the table. A rush of hot tears came up out of nowhere, and I sobbed quietly into my shirtsleeves. Maybe I was tired, maybe because it had been an awful week, but it was one of those moments when it feels like it’s the end of the world, you know? And I just sat there, nose in my shirtsleeves, in the dark for a while. I breathed in the smell of Tide, locked into the fabric of my sleeves, and I thought about my mother. There is something comforting about the smell of Tide amidst the salty smell of tears.
When I was young and something went wrong for me, my mother would gather me up in her arms which had that same smell, and she’d whisper softy in my ear, soothing words of comfort and hope. “Shhhhh…”, she’d say, “don’t worry about it, sweetie pie. It’s not the end of the world….”, and then of course she’d kiss me and eventually try to make me laugh, usually with a tickle. And of course, the crisis would pass, and I would carry on with new adventures that always seem plentiful and at hand for children.
Eventually I pulled my head up from my pillowed arms and stared at the computer screen in front of me. There was a new email from a good friend, and I opened it. She wasn’t specific, but it was clear she was very distressed about something, so I decided to call her. She answered immediately, and I could tell she had been crying. What’s wrong, I asked. Well, everything. And her words became garbled as she broke down on the other end of the phone, unable to hold back her sadness. She wanted the world to end for herself, and mumbled through her sobs the classic cry of despair: “Sometimes I wish I had never been born.”
And suddenly I was my mother, quietly reaching out to her to comfort and give her hope. “Shhhh….” I said. “It’s not the end of the world. You’re a wonderful, beautiful person.” And somehow I tried to communicate to her how much God loves her, how much I love her, and in the midst of that I realized how much alike we were, two souls on this good earth sharing the same moment of despair, needing the same message for our broken and uncertain hearts.
The end of the world in the reading from the prophet Daniel and from Jesus in the Gospel: the end of the world sounds pretty scary and pretty bad.
"A time unsurpassed in distress...everlasting horror and disgrace," was how Daniel put it.
Jesus said that the "sun will be darkened, the moon will not shed its light, the stars will fall out of the skies, and the heavenly hosts will be shaken."
Not a pretty picture, and one which some people take pretty literally. Since Jesus's time there have been people prophesying that the end is near, that soon there will be earthquakes and huge fires and floods and the whole solar system spinning out of control.
And yet you could make a good case for saying that this is poetic language to describe something even more cataclysmic: the end of the world that lives within us, the end of the world that we have made for ourselves.
The whole message of Jesus is a message about conversion, isn’t it? A changing of the heart from one of selfishness and fear to one of selflessness and confidence--confident that we are loved by "the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory."
You know, it's not that big a deal for God to darken the sun and flood the continents, send the moon spinning out into space. I mean, it's God, after all, who created all this stuff in the first place. The really amazing feat for God would be to change the course of the human heart, which is under our own power.
I believe that all these readings about the end time, the end of the world, are meant to make us see how simple it is--and how difficult--to make this truly the heavenly kingdom.
I got off the phone with my friend, and decided to go for a walk. I went to watch the dogs over at Stuyvesant Park. Seeing them play with one another—in sheer abandon--always makes me happy. As I sat on a bench, and thought about how oblivious and unburdened those animals were to the existential weight we humans carry around with us.
I noticed a squirrel just beside me, beneath a tree. He was incredibly tame, and seemed content to simply stare at the dogs with me. I had a cookie in my pocket, and I decided to offer him a treat, and as I leaned towards him, he didn’t move even a tiny bit. That’s when I realized he had no life in him at all. It was as if he had been overcome by the beauty of it all, and his little heart just stopped. Little creature, out there in the park, God’s light and life all around him, and his life was over. How many days had he seen, I wondered, how many nights, since she was born out of the darkness of his mama’s furry belly into the light of the city park?
I left him where he sat, as he followed the path that we all follow—ashes to ashes, dust to dust--to the end of the world. What will the end of time be like, for me, for all of us? At dinner the other night I asked a friend what he thought it will be like. “You mean, when I see the face of Jesus?”, he asked. I nodded. “Well, when I look into his eyes, I will see the face of everyone I knew and ever loved, and he will embrace me, and I will be in him and he in me.” Will you be happy? I asked. He smiled. “I will be complete,” he said.
How we all want to be just that, to be complete. And that’s where we are all headed. As Jesus says “He will gather the elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky…shining brightly like the splendor of the firmament, like the stars forever…”
How will the world end? As Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the US has written, maybe something less operatic than the sky exploding and horsemen galloping out of flaming clouds. Maybe a black tarp, a kind of boat cover, could be lowered over the universe one night, or a hand could enter the picture and crumple the cosmos like a ball of paper and hook it into a wastebasket. A gigantic door could close. A loud bell could ring.
Or maybe one day, we will all just be sitting in a park, with the sun shining down upon our furry bodies, enjoying the beauty of it all, and God will say, that’s it, and stop our little hearts, close down the heart of the world, jealous in His love for all of us to take it all back to himself.
In fact, I’m sure that’s how it is going to happen, and why…because I know that the love of God for me and for you is that great that we will never, any of us, ever be left alone beyond love.
The end of the world. Sometimes at the end of a terrible week, it feels like sun and the moon of your life have been darkened and the stars have fallen out of the skies. As the tears begin to well up, listen carefully. God has a message for you, the same for us all.
Shhhhhh, don’t worry about it, sweetie pie. The end of the world without is the beginning of the world within. You shall live forever, shining brightly like the splendor of the firmament.
In my Love.