Friday, March 11, 2011

Do Earthquakes Like Japan's Suggest the End of the World?

Matthew's Gospel reads:

As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?”  And Jesus answered them, “Take heed that no one leads you astray.  For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.  And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs. (Matt. 24:3-8)
The common interpretation is that Jesus was giving us signs to look for as harbingers of the end of the world. I don’t think that this is correct.
For one, it would be very inconsistent with His firm, explicit instructions from the same discourse not to worry about or to look for when the end is coming. In fact, in this quoted passage, He actually seems to be cautioning His listeners that reading into these kinds of events can lead one astray.
However, another interpretation of His words exists which is consistent with these messages, namely, one could understand the passage such that Jesus is telling His disciples precisely that these kinds of events are not signs of the end. Remember, He is speaking here to a group of mainly Jews living in an age and with a theological outlook wherein every negative event was taken as a sign of God’s anger. These are the people who asked Jesus whose sin was responsible for a man’s blindness, and who assumed that the fall of the tower in Siloam was yet another punishment. Moreover, He knows that within a generation the terrible disasters of Nero and the destruction of the Temple were to come. It is this people to whom He’s trying to give His message not to see the end of the world behind every falling rock or crashing tower and so be led astray.
Thus, it seems probable to me that His message was, rather than that the terrible events He lists are signs of the end, that they are just simply everyday events which will happen time and time again as the years carry on. “Over the thousands of years until my return,” He says in a sense, “there will be many earthquakes, wars, and famines. These are normal. They don’t mean the end is near.”
And indeed history has been filled with wars, famines, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other such events, and there will be more in the future. I have seen claims there more occurring now than in the past. I don't have the data to evaluate that claim, but if it is true, so what? Geology and climatology are defined by long cycles of increased and decreased activity. If we are in a cycle of increased activity, all the more reason to pray and be vigilant that we may be ready when Christ calls us by name and demands of us an accounting – but no reason to read in these things that the end is near. I dare say Christ told us not to.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Should You Give Up Facebook for Lent?

With ash wednesday just a day away many are finalizing plans for their Lenten sacrifices. The past few years Facebook has become a popular object of these sacrifices. This can certainly be a good idea, Facebook so  often being a distraction from God and from the productive, meaningful, spiritual lives that He calls us to.

At the same time, Facebook is a very easy, convenient option for our Lenten sacrifice - perhaps too easy. To be sure, for many a break from Facebook would lead them closer to our Lord, not to mention all of the "real life" people that He's put into their lives. Yet for others, Facebook is an important means by which they come closer to God and maintain their spiritual lives.

Of course, the easy example of this is that person who does not have very many, if any, spiritual friends to see in his or her day to day life. Such people may in fact get all the Christian fellowship that they do via Facebook friends who may either live too far away or simply not have the opportunity to get together very frequently. Of course, a laudable Lenten effort in such a case might be to try to see one another more frequently. This is a great idea! Yet as Christians we can never let the perfect be the enemy of the good (indeed, the good is an incomplete or particular manifestation of the perfect), and so giving up Facebook with such an approach in mind must be considered prayerfully and carefully.

Yet not everybody who derives spiritual benefit from Facebook does so simply because of a lack of good Christian friends in the being around. How many times have you found a good article on a Facebook link? How many times has an inspiring quotation on Facebook set your spiritual life on the right path a given day? How many times has seeing posts from your spiritual friends prompted you to live life for God that day - when perhaps otherwise you may not have thought of Him? How many prayer requests have you made, and responded to, on Facebook?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to encourage you not to sacrifice Facebook if that is something which will genuinely benefit you spiritually. By all means, if that's the case then case do it! What I am trying to do is to encourage you to make a careful consideration of the spiritual positives and negatives that Facebook affects in your life and prayerfully discern weather it would be a legitimate Lenten sacrifice for you, or simply an option that is easy to sign on to.

It's just like the old giving up chocolate for Lent: everybody seems to make this sacrifice, but in reality it's really only meaningful to a some. I myself, for example, would really not benefit from giving up chocolate or candy for Lent, yet in trying to figure out what sacrifice I should make its just right there and seems like such a common thing to do.  That must mean it's a good thing to do, right?

As people of Christ, we're always very rightly concerned with not giving in to the trends of the world, but we also need to be concerned with guarding ourselves against theological or spiritual trends. Such trends may concern themselves with things which are objectively good, such as abstaining from meat or chocolate or some other thing, but as trends, they don't take in to account our particular souls and our particular spiritual needs. The place I'm at and the needs of my soul maybe very different from where you are at and what you need.  Indeed for some, it may be that giving up Facebook or chocolate or any particular thing may be an "easy out" compared to some other sacrifice which would be a genuinely challenging and enlivening effort to make. 

This is why the Church presents to us both the universal truths - the doctrines and dogmas - as well as the diverse array of different spiritualities as shown to us by the saints. It's why She gives us the Catechism while still encouraging us to get individual spiritual directors. The truth, of course, does not change and so can be presented in black and white in a Catechism. However, Grace builds upon nature, and each of our natures is going to be a little different.

So I encourage you to consider just what you need this Lent, and in particular just what God is calling you to - not by trend, but by name - and then follow Him with generosity.