It is almost 2012, and the world will soon be ending. At least, according to the Mayans and a fundamentalist preacher in California, it will. Even though the Church’s readings in November, the end of the liturgical year, and Advent, the beginning, point toward the Second Coming, I have, I admit, not been overly concerned.
But then I had an unusual conversation a few weeks ago with a priest who was passing through town, one of those delightful Jesuits one meets who could be described as “a little crazy, in a good way.” On the surface, this good priest appears a tad unkempt, but you can tell from the way he prays the Mass—and he is praying, not performing—that the man has real spiritual depth.
While visiting our community, this man talked about his time, many years ago, working on the Rosebud Reservation, where I am now stationed. He talked about working with prisoners and people in one of the reservation’s most depressed communities and then said, almost out of nowhere, “It was here that I realized that prisoners and the really destitute have an intuitive understanding of the apocalypse—the good news of the apocalypse.” And then his voice rose slightly and he gave his little-crazy-in-a-good-way laugh and added, “Because it is good news.”
I realized I had never thought of the apocalypse as good news before, but I should have. The Bible itself ends with an urgent prayer for the Lord’s swift return: Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20). We pray for the end of this world every day in the words of the Our Father, Thy Kingdom come.
And yet, when it comes to Kingdom Come, I have to confess, my first hope isn’t that it arrives post-haste. My vision of the apocalypse has been shaped by the glut of apocalyptic movies from the past several years. Computer-generated meteors, earthquakes, floods, and aliens are cool to watch from the comfort of a recliner but not the sort of things I wish for in reality.
A certain foreboding when it comes to the End can’t be blamed entirely on Hollywood either; the book of Zephaniah describes “the day of the Lord” as “bitter,” “a day of wrath,” “a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry,” and, well, it gets worse.
And this is what we’re praying for? This is good news? This is the sign God is near?
I have had to make several long, sad trips these past two months, from South Dakota to the small town in central Illinois where my immigrant grandparents spent most of their life, and on these trips I’ve had plenty of time to wonder about the “good news of the apocalypse.”
My grandfather—for whom I am named, whose story of growing up in Italy, surviving World War II, and working on several continents shaped the way I think abut just about everything—died on the first Monday of Advent. It all came on rather suddenly: he had fallen; he had back pain; his arthritis had flared up; he had a pulled muscle—he was 89, so there was always some health malady—and then the pulled muscle, the back pain, the arthritis all turned out to be multiple tumors in his spine.
When I got the news and knelt down on the floor of our little house chapel, I found I had nothing to ask God for; I was just given, I was just overwhelmed by—gratitude. For his 89 years, for a truly good life, for having him in my life for over three decades, for the window to another world his presence had given me. When I got to Illinois and saw him, I found that he was grateful too.
I brought him communion myself during the week I spent with him; read to him the life of our common namesake, St. Anthony, in Italian; and prayed, in front of one of my grandmother’s plastic Mary figurines, that the Blessed Mother would take him home.
And she did, I have no doubt. Never in my life as in those few weeks have I had such a palpable sense of the presence of the saints, a presence that might terrify us if we felt it all the time. Those same days, my grandfather started to cry out “mamma,” and sometimes “papa,” often reaching an arm out to some spot in the room, his eyes turned upward as if there were somebody else there.
Of course, the painkillers, the narcotics, were making him confused; sometimes he’d call us by the wrong names or seem not to notice the passage of time. Sometimes too, though, even if he’d been asleep, he would know who had been by to visit, and he managed to maintain enough of his will and personality to tell a few old stories and to flirt with the nurses. I wondered if, in the midst of the confusion and pain, he had glimpsed some of those “things invisible” in which we profess, in the Creed, to believe.
God was drawing him nearer to Himself, but it was terrible to see—even to hear about secondhand once I had returned home. He lost control, in fits and starts, of everything, spent nights in pain and agitation, calling out, unable to stand but wanting to get up, eventually unable to swallow, at times confused about what exactly was going on, and then, finally, growing calm again in the last few days, sleeping peacefully, dying.
He was at home when he died, as was his firmly—very firmly—expressed desire. On the morning that he died, the hospice nurse told my mother that his kidneys were shutting down; she made a round of calls to the relatives and a call to the parish priest, who came right over, anointed him again for the last time, and then, five minutes later, he opened his eyes, squeezed the hands of my mother and grandmother, and died. It was what Catholic piety would call a good death.
My grandmother kept saying, almost in disbelief, “It was so peaceful.” And it was. After all the pain and terror, the breaking down and loss, the final passage was so—gentle. The priest arrived to bless him on his way, and Nonno went home.
In the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict asks, What did Jesus bring? He did not bring economic prosperity or political liberation for mankind, not even for the people of Israel; he cured diseases and brought the dead back to life, but sickness and death are still with us.
“What did Jesus actually bring,” the Pope asks, “if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought?”
The answer is very simple: God. He has brought God… He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope, and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little.
I am grateful for my grandfather’s long, colorful, and good life, and that his life was also a part of my life. I am even grateful for that awful time of grace as the Lord approached to take him home and everything else was stripped away. The day of the Lord is great and terrible, as Zephaniah prophesied, for on it, everything but God will be destroyed. The apocalypse becomes good news when God becomes enough for us.
So let the day of wrath come, even if it terrifies us because of our infatuation with this mortal world, our love for this vale of tears, beautiful and rich and wonderful as it is at times. On that day, after the trumpet blast and battle cry, God will be with us, gentleness itself. And when the old order has passed away, death shall be no more, nor mourning nor crying nor pain. All that will remain for us to do will be to kneel before the child in Bethlehem, who makes all things new.