I took the accompanying photo of the mother and small child on August 29, 2023, at De Katheraal, the mother church of Antwerp, Belgium dedicated to Our Lady. The church itself took 170 years to build [1352-1521] and was never officially declared “finished.” One reason was the repetitive “Wars of Religion” in the sixteenth century which made capital projects risky in many places. But in the 1600’s the cathedral became best known as the “House of Rubens.” Peter Paul Rubens [1577-1640] was a devout Catholic artist and diplomat who painted the famous triptych of Christ’s Passion for the church’s sanctuary. In truth, there is a large collection of Rubens’ work in De Katheraal, and as happens in the old venerable churches, the line between cathedral and gallery can often become blurred. A very good thing, really, along the lines of “one picture is worth a thousand CCD classes,” etc.
While it is true that rich patrons and the craftsmen guilds commissioned works of art and even whole side altars in medieval and renaissance churches for the donors’ self-aggrandizement, the fact is that church art was one of the most powerful catechetical tools in the transmission of the Faith. In the case of the prolific Rubens, his body of work centered Catholics of his time on the major mysteries of the Faith at a time of civil and religious unrest. When you look at Rubens’ portrayals of salvation history, the glory of salvation and the utter horror of damnation, you understand the fervor of the times to buy indulgences.
In viewing Rubens’ bigger than life portrayals, I was struck by several things. First, the artist knew his Bible very well. Second, he could capture human emotions, notably wonder and terror, with skill. And third, he grasped the meaning of apocalyptic—the “big bang” of the future. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines the adjective “apocalyptic” in this way:
The Bible--both Testaments—is rich in apocalyptic flavor but very few Catholics today recognize the genre for what it is. When I was growing up in the 1950’s apocalypticism was taught and preached regularly in my parish and school, though not exactly by that name. We typically used the word “judgment.” My third-grade teacher, a devout sister on the cusp of dementia, explained that when we died, we would have two judgments: an immediate individual assignment to either Purgatory or Hell. Then later, there would be a massive final judgment where everyone from all of history would each stand individually and watch every one of his or her sins on a giant movie screen before God and the entire human race. [The “giant movie screen” was sister’s interpretation. She also told us third graders we would have a new modern school in two years, or 1958. She was half right. Our present school was demolished in the 1970’s.] Look at an old family Bible printed in the mid-twentieth century: the final book of the New Testament was called “The Apocalypse.” Recent editors have gone to the title “The Book of Revelation,” perhaps to soften the blow for modern readers.
Actually, the spirit of apocalypticism has been part of Church life and teaching from the beginning. Jesus does talk about both individual judgment [see Luke 16: 19-31, the Rich Man and Lazarus, for example] and general judgment [Matthew 25, in its entirety.] The readings at our parish Mass last weekend for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time [A, particularly Matthew] were rich in apocalyptic theology—the five foolish virgins locked out of joy for all time because they [literally] fell asleep on the job. My wife Margaret quipped on the way home that you had to be pretty stupid to go out at midnight to buy more oil at a time when there was no artificial lighting. She’s right, and certainly St. Matthew was, too: when you lose track of reality and the imperative of watching for God’s coming, you are prone to grave consequences.
The most dramatic apocalyptic language in the New Testament is found in the “Little Apocalypses” which appear in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. [The Book of Revelation, the old Apocalypse, is in a class by itself.] Mark 13 is a brilliant apocalyptic commentary straight from the lips of Jesus, and Mark’s two successors, Luke and Matthew, pick up his lead. As the evangelists describe the coming ferocious moment of truth, they seem to go out of their way to describe the terror and suffering of mothers with nursing children at the end of time. It is not that these vulnerable people will necessarily be damned, but rather that even infants will be consumed by what they see. Consider St. Matthew’s words in 24:19: “How miserable those days will be for pregnant and nursing mothers!” But consider Jesus’ words in Luke’s Gospel as he carries his cross past the women weeping over his fate: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. Look, the days are coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore, and breasts that never nursed!’ At that time, they will say to the mountains, fall on us! and to the hills, Cover us!”
Matthew’s word “miserable” is intriguing and fitting. Our certainties, our casualness, our complacency about the reality and meaning of the universe will be turned upside down. Dives the Rich Man never expected that he would end up in hell while poor Lazarus at his gate, who starved while his sores were licked by dogs, enjoyed eternal comfort in the bosom of Abraham. The mothers with children at the breast were dreaming of a long progeny. We weekly profess our belief in the end of the cosmos as we know it: He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.” Deep in our hearts we know that the world is not right, that our personal existence is not right, but we hug to the security of the given moment, nodding off to sleep like foolish virgins while the poor Lazarus figures of the world suffer patiently to occupy the throne in the eternal kingdom that you and I assume is ours.
The language of the Bible, or the paintings of Rubens and others, on the “end times” were not to traumatize us but to wake us, to remind us that the works of God—creation, redemption, final completion—must always be at the center of our thoughts when we think of ourselves as Christians. Put here in miraculous creation, blessed with divine presence from our first days as nurslings, we are heading toward a reunion with our creator which will determine whether we bask in God’s love or hear the worst words imaginable: “I don’t know you.”
SO, WHAT, REALLY, IS ADVENT?
We are on the heels of Advent, less than two weeks away. How have we traditionally approached it? As a 25-day countdown to Christmas Eve? From a thematic vantage point, one can make a good case that Advent—the Latin word for “coming”—really begins liturgically on the dual feasts of All Saints and All Souls, the observances of those who have heard the words of God, “enter into my kingdom” and the much larger population of those not yet ready to behold the face of God. Regardless of what the liturgical calendar says, the weekend liturgical readings of the months of November and December are future oriented and heavily apocalyptic. In 2023 there is barely a hiccup at the end of the liturgical year A [November 26] and the beginning of the liturgical year B [December 3]. Apocalypse is the rule of the realm. After nearly two months of reflection on Christ’s second coming and the judgment and deliverance of the saved the first “Christmas readings” [weekend and weekday] begin on December 17! A mere week before Christmas That’s a long time after Black Friday.
I have provided the assignment of readings from the Lectionary for the next five Sundays, lined up for your convenience:
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Christ the King, Final Sunday of Year A
1st Sunday of Advent [B]
2nd Sunday of Advent [B]
3rd Sunday of Advent [B]
These readings—particularly the Gospels—are apocalyptic in style and a counterpoint to the way our friends, society, and nation approach the “holiday season.” The most powerful of the apocalyptic readings over the next weeks is proclaimed on the Feast of Christ the King on Thanksgiving Weekend…when we are well fed and comfortable. In Matthew’s text for that feast, the Great King separates the world into two groups: those who fed, clothed, and sheltered the needy, on the one hand, and those who did not on the other. It is always a mystery to me how we soft shoe through the apocalyptic months of November and December. The Liturgical books describe Advent as an observance of the first and second coming of Christ. If this year is like the other 75 years of my life, I expect to hear from the pulpit a lot of homilies about the first coming of Christ and only a hint of the second coming. Odd, because it is the Second Coming still out there, at a time “known only to the Father.” Live like it is today.