When the Canadian wildfires last summer tinged our skies orange and made our air smell of smoke, I heard these words around town: “It’s apocalyptic!” I heard it from friends, from people on line at the post office, and people online in general, usually accompanied by eerie pictures of the Manhattan skyline shrouded in an unnatural hue.
Although we may not all use the word “apocalyptic” the same way, one can’t miss the drift: Disaster seems to be looming — or has already arrived. The problems with our environment cannot be held back.
Since then, I have heard the word applied to other concerning situations, such as the state of affairs in Gaza as Israel defends itself against Hamas. “It’s apocalyptic,” one TV anchor said about the devastation in Palestine. In a recent interview, Tom Suozzi, a Democrat running for the congressional seat formerly occupied by George Santos, said Long Islanders are all talking about a sense of dread.
It seems so many of us are living with fear, outrage, and a sense of helplessness as serious threats to the well-being of earth and its inhabitants keep mounting. Climate change, wars, our shaky democracy, movies like “Oppenheimer,” and antisemitism in our own backyard — not to mention any personal challenges we may be dealing with — make “apocalyptic” a fitting word for the scale of the problems.
As a pastor, this is hardly a joyful message I like to share at the holidays, but I have been reflecting quite a bit on where we can find some hope as we begin a new year. We often find it in the laughter of children, meaningful work, and enduring and happy relationships, but I sense there is a need for something more this year, a source we can draw upon in our inner, spiritual life that will have some resilience when we read the news. Personally, I need to find some joy that is not a betrayal of common sense.
For Christians, keeping the end of the world in view is not new, although we are not very good at talking about it because the prospect is both unsettling and perplexing. The apocalypse (“the revealing”) is the word used for the “last days,” when Jesus returns to earth to complete his mission, followed by God’s creation of a new heaven and a new earth. But preceding all this, as Jesus explains, it won’t be pretty.
“Nation will rise against nation . . . there will be earthquakes in various places . . . there will be famines,” he warns. There will also be false teachers, false messiahs, and a host of cosmic repercussions that will make the stars fall from the sky.
It is unknown whether this language is literal or figurative, or if it will happen quickly or over eons. Biblical scholars give their best interpretation, but at the same time we can be certain of one thing — Jesus’s words about what to do in the meantime.
“Keep awake,” he says to his followers, who have nervously asked him when these predictions will occur. It turns out Jesus himself doesn’t know when, only the Father does, and so he tells them to not be lulled away while they wait; the moment can come at any time. But to those of us who have been doing our best to keep alert all this time, we have seen the wisdom of it: It makes you notice the way God comes to us in many different ways all the time.
To take this out of religious terms, anyone seeking an effective antidote to fear may find it in focusing on the good that might be coming our way right now. That way we can receive it, spread it around, and give it life.
Many spiritual practices advise their adherents to cultivate living in the present. This does not mean we should not be prudent and prepare for eventualities, nor does it mean the problems of the past or in the future are not serious. But to stay mindful of the opportunities we have each day to live in charge of ourselves, to live largely, to live proactively as part of the solution is a powerful act of resistance to the chaos that wants to creep in, even engulf us at times.
Keeping awake also has the benefit of keeping our feet planted in reality, and as we live responsibly into that reality, we are bound to alter it for tomorrow. Hope for our future is attainable, although perhaps hidden in the unclaimed possibilities of our daily choices.
In December, the church edges slowly toward Christmas. Away from the holiday rush, we actually begin the church year quietly in the season of Advent, where together we wait for the help that comes from on high. It isn’t lost on church folks that our faith journey begins when days are growing shorter, so that we must hold our deepest hopes in the dark.
At Christmas, of course, we hear about Mary and the angel proclaiming Jesus will be born, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” The human heart needs to know that as we wait in the dark there is always the prospect that the thing we hear approaching may be the thing that saves us.
Whether the difficulties in our world right now are signs of the looming apocalypse is beyond my ken. But I do know that turning the calendar this Dec. 31 can, in fact, take place with hope. The choice is between allowing speculation about dreaded outcomes to fill our thoughts, or making the effort to stay wide-eyed to the possibilities that present themselves today and enable us to be part of the solution.
Only if we keep awake will we make room in the future for what might have seemed impossible before.
The Rev. Candace Whitman is a pastor at large for the Presbytery of Long Island. She lives in East Hampton.