The destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 must have seemed to its inhabitants like the end of the world. And, in a very real sense, it did mark the end of a world. Jews who survived the massive slaughter were enslaved and dispersed, and the razing of the Temple meant that Judaism as a religion that offered sacrifice came to an end. The priestly caste of the Sadducees ceased to exist.
History is littered with the ashes of cultures that have ended in ruin. As St Augustine lay on his deathbed in 430, his diocesan see of Hippo was under siege by the Vandals as the Roman Empire crumbled. The fall of Constantinople a thousand years year marked the end of Byzantium. In Western Europe, the French Revolution and the Great War were different stages in the death of an Ancien Régime.
On all of these occasions it must have seemed to those caught in the eye of the storm that the world was ending. And, in reality, each of these events did mark the end of a world order. The truth is that cultures and civilisations rise and fall. Perhaps the greatest sign of hubris in any society is the presumption of invincibility. However mighty and magnificent any merely human civilisation might appear, its foundations are always shot through with the fault lines of human frailty. When we lose our sense of the reality of Original Sin, and we begin to ignore or even deny our need for God, then the results can only be calamitous.
The Gospels record Our Lord’s own prophecy of the end of the world. This does not relate merely to the fall of a civilization or world order, but to the end of time itself, when the Messiah Whose Nativity in a stable we celebrate at Christmas returns in Glory and Judgment. In an instant all of those questions which generate so much gas in interfaith dialogue workshops will receive an answer. Whether we are Christian, heathen or atheist, no-one will be able to deny that Jesus Christ is God the Son, and King of all Creation. On that day of reckoning, justice will be seen to be done on a universal scale, and the bodies of the dead will be reunited to join their souls in Heaven on in Hell. The Church Militant on earth, along with the Church Suffering in Purgatory, will be subsumed, purified and glorified in the Church Triumphant in Eternity.
Is the Second Coming imminent? Actually we entered the End Times when Our Lord Ascended into Heaven, and at every Mass we anticipate His return in glory when, united in facing to the East from whence His presence will appear and fill the skies, we pray “Thy Kingdom Come.” But the exact time of the Second Coming has not been revealed to us. Yes, the world is particularly unstable and violent at the moment. Yes, in theory, man now has the technological capacity to destroy this planet several times over; and yes, our current leaders seem to be especially feeble and platitudinous in the face of the dangers that threaten us. But for all we know, the human race might have just left the starting post of its history, with many millennia to come.
What we can probably say, with a little more confidence, is that the prognosis for our own society is not looking so healthy. In recent decades our culture has been busy hollowing itself out from the inside, with laws appearing on the statute books that contravene the Commandments that God gave to Moses amid thunder and lightning on Mount Sinai. Holy Scripture teaches, and the Church repeats in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that there are sins that cry to Heaven for punishment. The fact that our Parliament has been discussing the legalisation of “euthanasia” is a sign that that we live in a culture that is contemplating moral suicide. When sins that cry to Heaven become enshrined in the legislation of the land, then perhaps it is time to fasten our seat belts and brace ourselves for chastisement.
The recent terrorist attacks in Paris have reminded us of the fragility and the vulnerability of our own society. God never wills evil to happen. That would go against His very nature. But He does sometimes permit evil. And when He permits it, we can be sure that He is sending us a message. In those events in Paris, and in all of the other terrible things that are happening around the globe today, He is surely calling us to our senses. He is calling the world back to Him. As hatred, violence fear and confusion threaten to engulf humanity, He is calling us to look up to the arms of Our Lord Jesus Christ outstretched in love on the Cross. It is on the Cross, and in the Crucifix, that we find the solution to everything that is happening around us. That Cross is the Throne of the Prince of Peace. And it is only through taking up the Cross in our lives that we shall conquer evil and establish peace. The Cross is the threshold we must traverse to arrive at the Resurrection. The Cross is the invincible banner that ensures Christian victory.
In our Baptism, the priest traces the sign of the Holy Cross over our hearts, and we are filled with Sanctifying Grace. In our Confirmation, we are anointed with oil and commissioned as officers in the war against evil. This is a war in which there are no civilians. St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians reminds us that this is not just a war against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities and spiritual wickedness in high places.
It is a sobering reality of life in Europe today that we live alongside people who are plotting to maim and kill us. The constant threat of terrorism reminds us that the thread that connects our bodies to our souls is delicate and could be severed at any moment. So what can we do to protect ourselves? Well, the one thing that matters ultimately – whether we die in our own beds or at the hands of a religious maniac- is that when our time comes we are in a state of grace. So the first thing we should do if we are conscious of any mortal sin on our soul is to go to Confession. Then we can go back out into that dangerous world without fear, with the Cross of Christ emblazoned on our hearts, and Our Lord enthroned in our souls.
Every significant occasion now has its hashtag and its logo. There was a tragic pathos about the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan that was the response to the terrorist attacks in Paris in January. After the more recent attacks, the logo that appeared all over social media was “Pray for Paris.” Is this is a small sign that people are coming to their senses? At the Oratory we prayed for Paris. Holy Mass was offered for the souls of those murdered, and for the recovery of the injured. This Christmas, Masses will be offered for the well-being of our own realm and the safety of our loved ones. May the reign of the Prince of Peace be established universally in this wounded and dangerous world. May Our Lady of Victories intercede for us.
Fr Julian Large