When Emperor Tiberius governs Rome, John the Baptist appears along the Jordan River. What he says causes excitement, awakens expectations and raises hopes. The political and religious authorities were worried because they consider his message subversive. He says: The kingdom of heaven is near (Mt 3:2). After him, Jesus begins to travel through towns and villages announcing everywhere: The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is imminent (Mk 1:15). At times he says: The kingdom of God is already in your midst (Lk 17:21). The kingdom is the center of the preaching of Jesus: in fact, the New Testament mentions the theme of the kingdom of God 122 times and Jesus says it as many as 90 times himself.
A few years after his death, we find his disciples announcing the kingdom of God in all the provinces of the empire and in Rome itself (Acts 28:31). We would like the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles to explain to us the meaning of this expression, but none of them does. However, we notice that Jesus distances himself from those who politically and nationalistically interpret his mission (Mt 4:8). Nevertheless, his message contains an undeniable subversive load to the existing structures in society. Those in political and religious power considered him dangerous.
Starting as a small seed, the kingdom is destined to grow and become a tree (Mt 1:31-32). It is gifted with an irresistible force and will provoke a radical transformation of the world and of the people. The kingship of Jesus is difficult to understand. It has sent Pilate’s head in a tilt (Jn 18:33-38). It’s too different from those of this world. It has been misunderstood many times over the centuries!
To internalize the message, we repeat: “Thy kingdom come!”
In times of political upheavals, wars, famine, and pestilence follow suit. The situation of misery becomes intolerable. Rumors spread easily about the end of the world. To give credit to their ranting, the followers of the fundamentalist sects refer to some biblical texts. The most cited is this: “There will be difficult times in the last days. People will become selfish, lovers of money, boastful, conceited, gossips, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy. They will be unable to love and to forgive; they will be slanderers, without self-control, cruel, enemies of good, traitors, shameless, full of pride, more in love with pleasures than with God” (2 Tim 3:1-4). We encounter these uncomfortable situations in every age so those who want to make predictions about the end of the world do not have difficulty in establishing the dates. And this is what the Jehovah’s Witnesses do.
For the authors of the New Testament, the last times are not the ones coming in millions of years, but those in which we are living, the one initiated with Easter. It is not easy to understand the meaning of what is happening in recent times. Our eyes are veiled, clouded. Too many realities are shrouded in mystery: misfortunes, inexplicable absurdities, contradictions and signs of death. It is difficult to discern a plan of God in all this.
Using apocalyptic language and images, Jesus wants to remove the veil that prevents us from seeing the world through the eyes of God. When he seems to announce the end of the cosmos, he is not referring to the end of the world, but helping us to understand the end of the world. Apocalypse does not mean catastrophe, but revelation, unveiling. We need the words of Christ to illumine us and, among the scribbles drawn by people, let us see the features of the masterpiece that God is painting.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “Lord, stay close to me, I place my hope in you.”
We leave the maternal womb and enter into this world; after childhood, we enter adolescence; we leave adolescence for youth; youth to mature age and old age. Finally, the time comes to leave this world to which we have grown fond of perhaps to the point of deeming it to be the final abode and not wanting anymore to leave it. Yet on this earth, our aspiration to the fullness of joy and life is continually frustrated.
When, with disenchantment, we consider the reality, we check everywhere for signs of death: diseases, ignorance, loneliness, frailty, fatigue, pain, betrayals—and our conclusion is: no, this cannot be the definitive world; it is too narrow, too marked by evil. Then the desire to roam beyond the narrow horizon wherein we move emerges in us; we even dream of being abducted to other planets where maybe we are freed from any form of death.
In the universe, we know the world to which we long for does not exist. To satisfy the need for the infinite that God has put in our heart, it is necessary to leave this land and embark on a new exodus. We are asked for a new exit, the last—death—and this frightens us.
Even the three disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, they heard Jesus who spoke of his exodus from this world to the Father (Lk 9:31). They were seized by fear. “They fell with their faces to the ground and were so afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, and said, arise and be not afraid” (Mt 17:6-7).
From the third century, there appears, in the catacombs, the figure of the shepherd with the sheep on his shoulder. It is Christ, who takes by hand and cradles in his arms the person who is afraid to cross alone the dark valley of the death. With him, the Risen One, the disciples serenely abandon this life, confident that the shepherd to whom they have entrusted their life will lead them towards lush meadows and quiet streams (Ps 23:2) where they will find refreshment after a long tiring journey in the desert of this dry and dusty earth.
If death is the moment of encounter with Christ and an entry into the wedding banquet hall, it cannot be a dreaded event. It is something we expect. The exclamation of Paul: “For me, dying is a gain. I desire greatly to leave this life and to be with Christ” (Phil 1:21,23)—should be uttered by every believer.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “Teach us, O Lord, to count our days.”
Men of all ages have been confronted with the distressing enigma of death and have tried in every way to overcome or at least to exorcise it. The Egyptians resorted to mummification to preserve the body from decomposition. They have made rituals, ceremonies, complicated and detailed funeral practices to ensure the deceased a life in the world of Osiris. The people of Mesopotamia spoke of death as a descent to “the country of no return” and resigned, they had to admit: “When the gods formed humanity, they attributed death to people and held life back in their hands”. Others have thought about the possibility of a return to the life of this world through a succession of countless reincarnations.
How many things happen in our life: we are born, we grow, we fall in love, we form a family, we educate our children, we experience joys and sorrows, we cultivate hopes and dreams. Then one day everything seems to conclude in the void of death. All end, everything disappears! The dialogue of love, affections, relationships with loved ones are broken. Do we go back into the nothingness from which a gesture of love of our parents drew us? Has God truly created a person for a fate so cruel? What is left of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, only their first names?
God gave an answer to these questions: “The Christian hope—said Tertullian, the famous father of the Church of the second century—is the resurrection of the dead; all that we are, we are because we believe in the resurrection.”
To internalize the message, we repeat: “In my waking, O Lord, I will enjoy contemplating your face.”