As the liturgical year winds down, we are each day treated to images of the biblical apocalypse, those jarring end-times scenarios articulated by Jesus and through the mystical imagery delivered to us out of Patmos by Saint John. While at every Mass the Church declares that we “wait in joyful hope for the coming of the Lord,” these readings can feel terrifying. Today, we hear this from Christ Jesus:
People will die of fright,
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of Man
coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
But when these signs begin to happen,
stand erect and raise your heads
because your redemption is at hand. (Luke 21:26-28)
Joyful hope? With people dying of fright?
Well, that makes me want to run away, because I know my sins. I know what I have done and what I have failed to do. I hope for heaven but suspect I’ll detour to Purgatory come my judgment, because even as I actively pursue holiness I know where my sinkholes are, where I have fallen short, day by day. I know all of the interior corners of my soul wherein my deeply ingrained ugliness still resides. I know what I’ve been remiss to surrender to the Lord or to scrub clean with the help of grace, and a bit of spiritual or physical discipline.
So, yes. At the idea of the great apocalypse, I may wait in joyful hope, but when it brings the revelation of God’s terrible glory, and the uncovering of my grime, I don’t know what I will do. I hope I will trust enough in the sweetness of Christ’s mercy, of which I have already drunk deeply, to hold fast.
Over the past months and weeks, I have watched professional acquaintances announce that they are leaving the Catholic Church. The ongoing apocalypse of her sins, the seemingly endless uncovering of priestly abuses, the betrayals of trust, the revealed exploitation of idealistic young men by those in authority, and the perceived foot-dragging by Rome, have all become too much for them to bear and remain Catholic. Author Damon Linker called it all “monstrous, grotesque ugliness” as he closed the door behind him.
Journalist Melinda Henneberger wrote: “When and if the bishops do fully rouse themselves, I won’t be in the pews to hear about it. I am a true-believing, rosary-and-novena-praying graduate of St. Mary’s Elementary School, the University of Notre Dame and l’Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium…I never thought it would come to this.”
Recently a friend declared, “I need a break.” He and his wife could not be convinced to look beyond the institutional men and remain focused on Jesus. “Come for Jesus,” I invited them, “Come for Jesus and pray for the Church!” They politely demurred. They are not looking to join any other Church, but right now, they do not want to be Catholic.
I know others—people who have loved the Church and labored in her fields for decades, both in the parish and professionally—who are barely dragging themselves to Mass, or white-knuckling it through each day, because they know that the Church is the Bride of Christ. They know that the fullness of truth resides within her; they love the sacraments, but they are heartsick beyond words, and do not know whether they too might end up needing “a break.”
This is sorrowful to witness, and I pray that these “breaks” are not permanent. I’m hoping each will mean that after a little time spent in the desert, they will again wish to meet Christ where Christ is, and come back to Mass.
Some people find these “breaks” to be incomprehensible and suggest that anyone who purports to understand that the Holy Eucharist is the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ yet can stay away “was never a real Catholic, never had faith.”
Well, that’s not fair, and it’s not a judgment any of us can rightly cast upon another, because faith is a mystery, all of it, and because human beings are only human. The Holy Eucharist is our supersubstantial daily bread; it is our royal food, our nourishment, and we love to feed on it where “sheep may safely graze.” But if the shepherds have so poisoned the fields that the sheep are feeling too sick, too nauseated, too unsafe to feed, then whatever the weaknesses of the lambs, a just God will hold the shepherds accountable.
Christ himself recognized that it is possible for priests to destroy the faith of the people and “woe unto them” when it happens. I imagine he has a bit of mercy for those trapped in that space, so I hope I can have some mercy too.
Some people can only handle as much as they believe they can handle, and it is no easy thing to stand where we are and watch darkness grow where the light is fading. It is unsettling, disorienting. Despite the risk of injury, we want to run, get away from the dark, because we can’t bear to stay within it.
But that is what Advent is asking us to do: to stay. To stand a watch in the gloaming as the ever-encroaching darkness draws near, and to ultimately give witness to the victory of light over night.
And then to stand in its glorious beams and see all things be made new.
And so this is what I want to say to my friends who have left, or who are struggling; those who are halfway out the doors, or think they soon will be:
My dear sisters and brothers, Hold on! Hold fast, and don’t run at the revelation!
Don’t try to run through the fearsome darkness!
Stay for Advent and stand the watch with me, with your family, with all of us, including the saints.
Be willing, for now, to keep company with Christ, so deeply wounded by his own Bride.
Consent, for now, to share in the hard times before us (they will yet get harder, the darkness will grow deeper, still) and help us to hold, to hold fast!
Because the light is coming; the darkness will never overcome it.
Remember that Isra-el means “struggle with God.” We are all little Isra-els right now, wrestling, wrestling within his house and seeking our Jerusalem, our Abode of Peace.
Hold on! Hold fast!
Because an Advent promise has been made to us, and God is ever-faithful, so we may trust in it: Your light will come Jerusalem; the Lord will dawn on you in radiant beauty.
This is for all of us. It is for you, and for me. It’s for every little Isra-el struggling.
Your light will come. Just hold fast.