Note: The following was originally written for Our Sunday Visitor in late 2009, in part because of the movie, "2012", released at that time. I am posting it here in light of the interest about the Mayan calendar and the date of December 21, 2012.
T. S. Eliot, at the conclusion of his 1925 poem, “The Hollow Men,” wrote, “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” That’s a far cry from the cosmic crisis depicted in recent apocalyptic books and films, including the heavily-touted and movie “2012” (see sidebar below), which is crammed full of bangs, computer-generated crashes, explosions, earthquakes, and floods.
Curiosity about the end of the world abounds. For many, it is both frightening and exciting to think they will witness The End. Wars and natural disasters are commonly interpreted as signs of approaching apocalypse; future famines and ecological crises are often promoted as hastening the same.
But are we really living in the end times? And what, exactly, does the Catholic Church teach about the end of the world?
These Are the Last Days!
For Catholics, the terms “end times” and “last days” refer both to the conclusion of history at some future point, and also—even primarily—to the last two thousand years. “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways,” wrote the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, “in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (Heb 1:1-2). It was the Incarnation, the entrance of God into time and space, which ushered in the end times and the last days.
In The Lord of History (London: Longmans, 1958), his study of Jesus Christ and history, Jean Cardinal Daniélou wrote of how the first and second coming of the Lord are intimately connected: “First of all, it means that the Last Things have already begun. The resurrection of Christ is presented as the first and decisive act of the last day. The Word of God took humanity to himself in the Incarnation, and cleansed it through his precious blood, and brought it into his Father’s house forever at his ascension. The work of salvation has been substantially done, everything essential has been secured already …” Yet God’s work of salvation and judgment still continues. “We are still waiting for that Judgment that will destroy the world of corruption and establish the kingdom of saints. This twofold relationship to something achieved and to something awaited specifies the current phase of time, which is the epoch of the Church.” The message of the gospel is that man can only be saved from the trials of history—especially sin and death—through God’s work within temporal history.
The Kingdom is the Key
Compared the often fevered beliefs of certain fundamentalist groups, New Age groups, extremist cults, and radical environmentalists, the Church’s teaching might appear decidedly mundane, even boring. But false teachings and skewed sensationalism cannot compare to the authentically radical and sensational teachings of the Church about history, salvation, and the eschaton—the culmination of time and history. The heart of this teaching is Jesus’ proclamation, made during his public ministry, that he was establishing the Kingdom of God (Matt 12:28; Mk 4:11; Lk 8:1-10). This everlasting kingdom was realized through his death, his resurrection, and his ascension into heaven.