Apocalypses have always been portrayed as a contrast between present evil and future glory

Father John A. Kiley

The 45 books in the Old Testament and the 27 books in the New Testament include works of poetry, history, letters, narratives, laws, proverbs, prophecies, even novels, and of course the Gospels. The Bible also has a good amount of apocalyptic literature, especially Daniel in the Jewish scriptures and Revelation in the Christian scriptures. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and indeed the Gospel authors also have apocalyptic passages in their writings.
Apocalyptic literature is always characterized by a grim present but a glorious future. For example, the first reading this Sunday from Malachy is certainly apocalyptic in its mood and language: “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch, says the LORD of hosts. But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.” The passage begins quite dismally with mention of a blazing oven, stubble, fire, and being left with neither root nor branch. Apocalyptic literature characteristically understands the present age as bleak. Then, visions of the future are always positive and include a divinely delivered victory, here represented by the soothing sun of justice. Such literature is rightly described as “a spiritual pep-talk in code.” Jews who knew the Bible would easily catch positive and negative Scriptural references and could then grasp the underlying revelation.
The New Testament also has apocalyptic passages scattered throughout its pages. St. Matthew’s chapter 24 and St. Mark’s chapter 13 certainly qualify as they narrate the anticipated end of the world in images that were drawn from the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 A.D. When speaking of the end times, apocalyptic literature generally includes a chronology of events that are to occur, and frequently places them in the near future, which gives a sense of urgency to the seer’s broader message. This coming Sunday’s Gospel passage from St. Luke chapter 21 also upholds an apocalyptic belief in the early but, at St. Luke’s writing, still sadly delayed end of the world. The actual historical destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 A.D. was rightly predicted by Jesus, as this Gospel passage relates. Now, a generation later, St. Luke and his community could look back with assurance that, just as Jesus had sadly but correctly predicted the end of Jerusalem and its Temple, so too will Christ’s happier pronouncement of their final redemption and ultimate victory occur.
Apocalypses are most often written from a culture of oppression, persecution and despair. Hence, an author would ignore no allusions regarding the sufferings of the present. But then the writer would be equally candid about the promise of a radical divine intervention which would overthrow the believers’ enemies and more than set things right. The ancient Jews certainly had their bleak episodes from which apocalyptic writings, always filled with promise, gave them some relief. The early Church community also faced challenges from resistance by Jews (think of Saul/St. Paul’s early career) and persecution by the Roman authorities (think of St. Paul’s later career). Accordingly, apocalypses always contained a sharp dualism, a great contrast between a present age dominated by evil and a future age signified by glory, triumph and vindication. “Not a hair on your head will be destroyed,” St. Luke advises this Sunday with some understatement.
This coming Sunday’s passage from St. Luke concludes gently and reassuringly, “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” Or, as an older translation read, “By your perseverance you will save your souls.” Having the perseverance that Jesus mentions here indicates a willingness and determination to trust in Him in all things and at all times. Worry and discouragement have no place among those who firmly believe that Jesus is truly a savior, a redeemer, a deliverer. The regular perseverance in the Christian life through the liturgy and prayer, through the Scriptures and the sacraments, through works of charity and justice will preserve the firm foundation begun at baptism and help every believer to maintain inner peace and deep assurance of God’s love and his ever-present aid — especially in apocalyptic times when life has become difficult, confusing, and frightening. “Hang in there”, the apocalyptic writer insists, “Not a hair on your head will be destroyed.”