When I was ordained a priest fifty-one years ago, the bulk of the Mass had passed into English but the Canon of the Mass was still in Latin. The body of the Mass, although in the vernacular, was still using the old Tridentine Mass of Pope St. Pius V which of course included the traditional required readings at weddings and funerals. These readings did not vary. Everyone was buried with the echo of Martha’s protestation of faith, “Yes, Lord, I have learned to believe that you are the Messiah, he who is to come into the world.” And everyone was married with the words of Mary at Cana resounding throughout the assembly: “Do whatever he tells you.” The second reading at this coming Sunday’s Mass, from St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, was, again, the invariable first reading at all funeral Masses: “We would not have you lack understanding those in the sleep of death…” et cetera. To this day, I have every word of these venerable readings memorized.
Very challenging is the explicit reference St. Paul makes to his readers regarding the Second Coming of Christ. Scripture scholars generally concur that the first generation of Christians expected the speedy return of Christ who would take them as well as the believing dead along with him to heavenly glory. St. Paul advises, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” Some of our Protestant brothers and sisters have evolved a detailed dynamic of Christ’s Second Coming. The “Rapture,” the return of Christ at a sometimes specified and sometimes unspecified moment in history, is accepted as an occasion for judgment during which those who have been loyal to Christ will be literally taken up into heavenly glory and those who have not known Christ will be left to a vague future. Both St. Jerome in his Latin translation of the Bible and the original Greek word of St. Paul give a good foundation for this popular belief. St. Jerome’s Latin word is “rapiemur,” which means “suddenly caught up” and St. Paul’s Greek word was “harpagesometha,” which again means exactly “suddenly caught up.” So there is some good foundation in the works of St. Paul for the notion of a rapture, a seizing up of believers into the clouds.
St. John too gives credence to a “millennial dispensationalism,” a theory that Christ will someday return to earth, embrace those believers who have been faithful to him, and then rule successfully for a thousand years. St. John writes, “Then I saw thrones; those who sat on them were entrusted with judgment. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast or its image nor had accepted its mark on their foreheads or hands. They came to life and they reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” Jehovah’s Witnesses greatly favor this notion of a thousand year reign of Christ and his just ones.
Let’s be frank. Roman Catholics rarely consider the Second Coming of Jesus Christ very thoughtfully. Indeed Catholics profess every Sunday that Christ “…will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and of his kingdom there will be no end.” But honest reflection on the certainly that Christ will return rarely crosses the average Catholic mind. Catholics do indeed believe in the eventual resurrection of the dead. Again quoting St. Paul: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Few Catholics would disregard this foundational belief. But pinning down the moment when “the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God” will sound remains wisely and inevitably undetermined by Papal decree or Church doctrine or even by popular Catholic folklore.
Traditional Catholic belief centers less on the Rapture, being caught up by Christ, and more on the Parousia, a time of fulfillment through union with Christ. Parousia, again a Greek word, means arrival or coming or most exactly “being throughout.” Parousia happily suggests that time when Christ will have completely fulfilled his role in history, when his redemptive acts will have permeated both humanity and creation and he will be “all in all.” He will have arrived, as the expression goes. The Second Coming will indeed be an occasion, in God’s good time, of universal fulfillment, of worldwide completion, and of arriving finally and fully at the goal of all Revelation and at the purpose of all history.