17 November 2013

Who will I be. . .at the end?

33rd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

The Man and The Boy—father and son—walk through an unnamed country laid waste by greed, hubris, and stupidity. There is nothing now but bitter ash, steel-gray bones, and cold human savagery. When the apocalypse arrived, it arrived with a whisper—no warning: no time to think, to pray, to remember. Those who survive do not gives thanks to luck or God; they do not count themselves among the fittest or the privileged. They are damned to live, damned to living on so little that it could be nothing with the next step, the next breath. The Man and The Boy have fire. And they carry this fire toward somewhere That Way. Anywhere but Here. Since God did not show His face nor did He send His angels to rebuke the stupidity of Man, The Man and The Boy walk. That's their prayer, their itinerant liturgy of starvation and unrelenting fear. What the world is for them now is nothing. There is nothing now but the world abandoned, left to rot as it turns around a star no one will ever see rise again. Jesus warns: “All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” Who will you be when everything is thrown down?

That question—who will you be when everything is thrown down?—is the question our apocalyptic literature asks us to ponder. From the Book of Daniel to the Book of Revelation, from The War of the Worlds to World War Z and The Walking Dead, we are confronted again and again with the possibility that everything we know and love will come to an abrupt, explosive end, and we will be left with nothing. In Cormac McCarthy's world-ending novel, The Road, a man and his son walk toward an undefined, undisclosed Somewhere. Mid-way through their pilgrimage, McCarthy gives us a vision: “[The Man] walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” What is the absolute truth of the world? Cold, unrelenting, darkness. And who are we? Hunted animals living on borrowed time. Believe it or not, this post-apocalyptic nightmare is for some among us a dream come true, and serves not only as a vision of things to come but as a philosophy as well, a settled-upon way of thinking about life.

That some of us would celebrate “the crushing black vacuum of the universe” and prefer to see themselves as “hunted animals trembling. . .in their cover” shouldn't surprise us. Given fallen human nature and the excuse of There Is No God So All Is Permitted, why not think of creation as a random cosmic process and humanity as prey-animals. Helmut Thielicke calls this attitude nihilism, writing, “Nihilism literally has only one truth to declare, namely, that ultimately Nothingness prevails and the world is meaningless.” Our own cultural turn to nihilism is attributed to the 19th c. German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, whose anti-Christ prophet, Zarathustra proclaimed the death of God. Nietzsche wrote, “Nihilism is. . .not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one’s shoulder to the plough; one destroys.” Contemporary nihilists continue the tradition. Nothing is true. Nothing is good or beautiful. Nothing matters. There is no point. No hope. No faith. Just destroy it all, release nothingness from its confining order, and let chaos reign.
Who will you be when everything is thrown down? Apocalypse fascinates western man b/c he wants to know who he is w/o the confining order of law, family, moral obligation, or God. Who am I really in the absence of tradition, science, the transcendent? If McCarthy's novel can be taken as a partial answer, Western Man is a violent serial rapist just one missed-meal away from becoming a cannibal. Jesus too gives us a glimpse of who we might become. He tells us that we will be “seized and persecuted,” handed over by family members and friends. At the end—the end of everything—even those who love us will abandon us. “You will be hated by all because of my name. . .” Is this a reason to despair? No, “not a hair on your head will be destroyed,” he promises. And yet, even this reassurance may seem shallow in light of the destruction of everything we know and love. So, to put The End in the proper perspective, we have to broaden our view to include the whole of salvation history, the entire prophetic tradition from God's first Word spoken over the nothingness of the void all the way to the last flickering images of Revelation in the mind of St John. What do we see? The long promise of God: be with Me, persevere with Me, and I will not abandon you. 
This is the promise that tells us who and what we are right up to The End. We are the recipients of a Divine Promise, a promise that constitutes the foundation of our lives in faith and shapes our lives with the hope of the resurrection. In this hope, that we will go on in the presence of God, nothing here and now, not even the destruction of the world, means the end of who and what we are in Christ. Because who and what we are is Children of the Most High, the redeemed sons and daughters of the Creator. Reaching back from this promise is the Hand of God, anointing those who believe with the blood of the Son and endowing them with more than just existential meaning, more than just a temporal purpose: we are anointed prophets, priests, and kings in the name of Christ and nothing can remove from us the ministry and mission we have received from Him Who made us. If an apocalypse sets fire to the whole world, nothing for us changes. We are still charged with proclaiming the freely offered mercy of the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. Jesus promises us, “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” 
Who will we be when everything is thrown down; when not one stone is left standing on another? With steadfast faith and iron perseverance, we will be who we are made and saved to be: Christs for one another. The temptation to give our praise and thanksgiving to Nothingness, to yield our hearts and minds to the numbing background noise of nihilism—it's constant: yield to the illusion that you are nothing more than thinking animals! Accept that you are accidents of chemistry and radiation! Live like commodities in a stockyard—eating, breeding, dying like cattle. For those who worship Nothing, nothing is sacred; nothing is good, true, beautiful. Yet we know that He Who made us and saves us shows Himself to us through everything He has made. So, even The End—when it comes—will reveal the glory of God. The Good News is that the end is not The End for those who fear His name. “There will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays” for those live in awe of His power, His unyielding love. When everything is bitter ash and steel-gray bones, the Son will shine and those who look to him will see. We will see the coming of his kingdom; his coming to rule with justice.
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  1. I thought this well-written. Would have enjoyed a "preacher-cam" to see the reaction to the first paragraph, for as I read it my eyes widened and I felt myself shrinking back a bit! I appreciated how you took us from the dark apocalyptic gloom to the Light, from despair to hope. This started out pretty heavy for a parish homily, but certainly ended on a hopeful note. Did I learn anything? Not really. Did it help me along my path? Well, no. But I've already been in and rejected the life of "nothingness", so you were preaching to the already converted and aware . . . but would this help to awaken and make some others aware? I'm not sure, though the good cultural references probably at least caught people's attention and gave them something to think about - but it definitely deserves follow-up with future homilies.


    1. This one is odd b/c it didn't go where I wanted it to go. . .and I'm not sure why it ended up where it did. I wanted to prepare folks for Advent by putting the apocalypse in the context of the Incarnation at Christmas. Guess I was over-thinking.

  2. Anonymous3:22 PM

    Found this very interesting summary of the nihilism of western culture and a Catholic understanding, - a good perspective to share with non-Catholic Christian friends who are alarmed at the current state of the West. So - if your aim was off, perhaps the arrow was meant for another target! :)
    - Metro

    1. Metro, I hope you are right! I always aim for the congregation in front of me. . .but this one wanted to be Something Else entirely. I think the poor people at OLR were a little stunned.

  3. Anonymous5:41 PM

    I think the homily powerful, the imagery powerful. I kept thinking while reading that I hope and pray that if I'm ever in such a place I'll know with all my heart that Christ is with me, the One who is the same today, yesterday and forever. Thank you, Father.

  4. Dear Fr Phillip, peace.
    Thank you for this homily. I too used the film The Road in the sermon I preached,
    but in a different way to the above.
    I would send you a copy but I am not sure how to do so. As a teacher of preaching
    I would be pleased to hear your comments.
    Blessings, Fr Ronan Kilgannon Erem. Dio.

    1. Father, thank you for your comments. You can post your homily here, if you like. Happy to read it. My readers will very likely have a thing or two to say.

    2. Father, thank you. I tried, but was informed that I had loaded more than 4,056 characters, and so my sermon was not acceptable in the comments column.
      You are kinder than your website.

    3. Email it to me: neripowell(at)yahoo(dot)com