33rd Sunday in Ordinary time

‘Paradise’ is no more. The town in California, ravaged by the recent wildfires, looks like a post-apocalyptic ghost town. The disaster hit so suddenly that many of the town’s residents were only saved by the skin of their teeth; many didn’t make it and died where they were. Sadly, it is the latest, but not a one-off tragic event on such a massive scale. Less than a couple of months ago a deadly tsunami hit Indonesia, leaving behind damaged property, settlements razed to the ground and over a thousand dead. You might also remember the deadly floods in the Indian state of Kerala, as well as many other natural disasters around the world. Each of them left behind a trail of material, physical and mental devastation. Each of those tragic events has been the end of the world for the affected as they knew it.

As we approach the end of the liturgical year, the biblical Mass readings focus on apocalyptic predictions and visions. Expectations of Judgment Day in the form of cataclysmic natural disasters were a popular genre among biblical prophets. To a great extent, the gaping inequality between powerful and influential elites, and the powerless, exploited and abused majority, drove beliefs that the former would eventually be punished for their misdeeds, pride and boastfulness, while the latter would be rewarded for enduring their hardships. Natural disasters, a common lethal and fearful experience in ancient times, offered a powerful image of such a final judgment. There is however one crucial flaw with taking a literal interpretation of such disasters as due punishment of God: the disasters occur indiscriminately. Wildfires, floods, storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and so on, struck each and every one of those people in the affected area: good and bad, poor and rich, young and old, dimwits and eggheads alike. In fact, if anyone is in a position to survive such disasters, it’s usually those who are better-off, who have the means to rebuild their lives. It’s the poorest who tend to be hit the hardest.

So, where does that leave us with the biblical cataclysmic, apocalyptic imagery? Even Jesus offers us such a vision, as we heard in today’s gospel. The clue lies in the closing phrase: ‘As for that day and hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son; no one but the Father.’ The message conveyed by Jesus here and in other passages is that his followers should always be spiritually and morally prepared as if the end of the world were just around the corner. He bids us not to postpone repentance or acts of charity to an uncertain and indeterminate future. That’s the main message of all those apocalyptic visions in the Bible: that we don’t really know what tomorrow will bring or even whether we will see tomorrow. So, make the best of the here-and-now because it’s the only time at your disposal.