Take a Good Look

Lk. 21:5-19


A preface comment: This past week I read a letter to the editor in The New York Times in which the writer was commenting on an item that had mentioned some kind of action by a group of secular humanists to oppose the observance of Christmas in our society. The writer made the observation that myth and metaphor convey truths that lie much deeper than the literal meaning of words and events. The writer was a woman who did not identify herself as an academic or religious professional. I turned to my wife and said, “That has been the basis of my theology for forty years.”

And now for a story: When I was a boy growing up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, it was a town of seven thousand souls, thirty miles west of Chicago and sandwiched between the railroad tracks of the Great Northern RR in the North and the Chicago Northwestern RR in the South. In those days there was a phrase, “Hey, take a look,” that was common. It implied insight, revelation and excitement.

One night in 1945, I was 10, a Northwestern freight trained derailed. My brother called my parents from Heintz’ drugstore. “Hey. You ought to come down here and “take a look.” So we piled into the Studebaker Commander and hurried downtown. The freight cars lay on their sides, contents spilling out on the banks of the tracks. The hopper cars carried wheat and the ground was covered with granular pseudo-new fallen snow. The boxcars, on the other hand, were loaded with cases of Canadian whiskey. “Take a look at that!” my Dad exclaimed. I was allowed to pick up a handful of wheat as a souvenir, but my family had no use for the whiskey. Others did some mild looting of the whiskey. It was my introduction to a massive accident and human venality: stealing. At a young age, I “took a look.”

A year later my brother called from the Glen Oaks Country Club, where he was working. “The lumber yard is on fire. Take a look.” So we boarded the Studebaker and drove down to Burgland and Stephens’ Lumber Yard. I don’t know if you have ever seen a lumberyard burn, but it is a horrific sight. The dried pine and oak create an incredible holocaust. You are buffeted by intense shock waves of heat and by the ferocity of the consummation. As I stood watching the fire, I was emotionally stripped of my natural defenses. Overwhelmed by the intensity of the fire, I started to cry. My parents asked why I was crying, and although I knew it was from the sheer horror and power of the conflagration, I told them it was because we lost some lumber, which we had ordered to remodel my bedroom. My parents accepted this explanation, but I knew that I had experienced an elemental experience of the force of sheer destruction. I felt as though I had looked into the maw of hell. I had had an apocalyptic experience. I had “taken a good look.” I don’t doubt that many of you have had a similar “good look” at something that was dreadful and which shook you. Perhaps it was a death, a loss a tragedy or a horrible mistake. That “good look” had an impact (probably traumatic) on your memory and your soul.

There is in both the Old Testament and the New Testament that which is called “apocalyptic literature.” That which is “apocalyptic” is where there is a “good hard look” that sees through things to a divine mystery. It sees into the deep, dark depths. It is a revelation. That which is “apocalyptic” demarks a new age, a new time. In Jeremiah, Malachi and Ezekiel we have examples where God declares His judgment upon His people and the coming of utter destruction, as well as an end of the world, in which the meaning of life will be finally known.

In the Gospel of Luke Jesus uses the poetic language of the apocalyptic when He speaks of the destruction of the temple, the violent upheavals of nations, and the cosmic end of history. He reads “the signs of the times.” Jesus sees the struggle between that which is creative and that, which is destructive, between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Jesus uses the apocalyptic genre not as a council of despair but to encourage and to exhort His followers to be vigilant, faithful, and ready. Christians are to witness to the Gospel of God’s redemptive action in Jesus Christ. Christ assures them that they will be able to do so because they will have the presence of the Holy Spirit. In the midst of total loss and destruction Christians are to endure. In their endurance they will find life. They will gain their souls.

In my homilies this past week, I talked about the fact that what we do now affects our relationship to God in the afterlife. This Sunday I am asking you to “take a good look” at your life, what has happened to you, and is happening, at a much deeper level. When you and I look around, we see wars, natural destruction, terrible man made destruction, the pollution of our rivers and air. Recently I saw an ad challenging Al Gore to debate with four men over the issue of global warming. Well, maybe things can be looked at as cyclical, but do these four guys really think that the rivers and air in China are not running sewers? Do they not see the dead treetops caused by acid rain that has fallen in eastern Canada? Yes, our beautiful temples (churches) are and will fall down as a result of war, economic displacement, pollution and neglect. “Take a good look” at the conditions of our cities and our rural areas. “Take a good look” at the conditions of the people who live in rural poverty as well as urban poverty. It is an apocalyptic vision. There is evil, death and darkness right around us, even where there is much that is good, creative and affirming.

Jesus’ apocalyptic statement ends with his words regarding the salvation of the souls of the faithful. He is looking through that which is around us, that which is discouraging and depressing. and He is sees the hand of God active in the cosmos and in eternity.

Five years ago on the eleventh of November my wife and I were having breakfast when the phone rang and my daughter in law told us to turn on the TV. We did and we saw the tragic destruction of the Twin Towers and the horrifying death of hundreds. It was an apocalyptic vision. Unlike Pat Robertson, the TV preacher, I did not see it as God’s judgment upon our nation for the sins of homosexuality and the lack of family values. Rather I saw it as an act of evil and darkness erupting in our all too human lives. Looking at the holocaust of it I had a strange awareness of the hand of God not causing the destruction but holding us in his power and compassion from the death and destruction at the end of time. Somehow my experience of the fire at the lumberyard, where I felt I was looking into the maw of hell had prepared me to face this far more horrendous event. The added factor, of course, is that I had read the apocalyptic material in both the Old and New Testament. Even so I was aware of the fact that there is greater meaning to life than what was lost in the destruction of the Twin Towers.

The apocalyptic literature, and Jesus’ use of it, reminds us of the cosmic dimension to our existence. We are forced to get out of the Studebakers of our lives and “to take a good look” again and again and to see that God is the creator of the whole cosmos, even of the beginning of time.

At the end of Mass we read the preface to The Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. And the Word Was God.” The cosmic dimension that apocalyptic statements bring sets us up for the beginning of the seasons of Advent and Christmas. You and I are reminded In John’s preface that it is the God of the cosmos who brings about His own incarnation in a virgin, in a village, in a remote part of this cruel/beautiful world. We are reminded that it is the God of the cosmos who sends a star, three wise men and a group of shepherds. The incarnation that we celebrate both in Advent and Christmas is a cosmic event. It is the identification with our mortal lives of the omnipotent, omniscient God of history through the birth of His son who shows us in His sacrifice that God triumphs over sin, death and darkness.

As you deal with your own apocalyptic moments of loss, despair, guilt and sin, “take a good hard look” again. Your pain and sorrow, hopes and joys are temporal upon this island home that you and I call earth. If you “take a good look” through eyes of faith you will also see that our pains and joys have a cosmic aspect. They are scooped up and held by the creator of the universe. They matter in a very personal way to the God of the cosmos, for He has identified with us and breached the gap between cosmos and earth through the gift of His blessed Son.

In Jesus you and I have more than a rabbi, a prophet, a healer, a miracle worker, or an example of goodness. In Christ Jesus you and I have an apocalyptic embodiment that shows forth our connection to the God of the cosmos and the ultimate defeat of evil, sin, death and darkness.

“Take a good look” again at the pain and difficulties in your life. See the hand of God beyond them, shaping and reshaping your life and world. “Take a good look” at your child, your spouse, your parents, your friends and even your church. Behold the beauty of God’s love and compassion, reaching beyond the galaxies and affirming you, your world and your existence.

“Take a good look” at all that you are and all that you can do when you walk with Christ and reach out to do His will, empowered by the Almighty who started the whole thing rolling and who sends the Holy Spirit to bless and direct us as we seek to live our lives as part of the body of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns both now and forever. Brothers and sisters, this second Sunday before Advent, “take a good look.” Amen. – Fr. Gage -