“If you are reading this bulletin,” wrote Monsignor Paul Langsfeld, pastor of The Courtier’s parish of St. Stephen Martyr, in this Sunday’s edition, “it means the world did not come to an end on May 21 as some of our fellow Christians predicted.” The same of course can be said for those of you who are reading this blog post. Even though things did not come to pass this past Saturday as predicted, the occasion should give us pause, particularly to ponder what, exactly, we think the end of the world is going to look like.
Truthfully, at the precise time the Rapture was supposed to have happened, the author was preparing for an evening out, and so had to be reminded of the fact that the time was nigh. Since he is a Catholic, he did not expect to be raptured anyway, since the Church does not hold to the idea of the so-called “rapture” as it is commonly understood. The “rapture” and end of the world have been predicted by many people over the years, but this latest was perhaps the first to gain serious traction through a combination of modern media – radio, television, print advertising – and po-mo media – the internet, texting, social networking.
In the end, and despite a fortune spent on advertising, no one inexplicably disappeared despite Harold Camping’s predictions, which have spread poverty and disappointment at the expense of Christ. For in fact many people have suffered for following this man’s teachings, through a combination of their unwillingness to heed the words of Christ – “No one knows the day nor hour” – and a lack of common sense. Believing that there will be a Last Judgment is one thing, but abandoning your job and your obligations to care for your family and your community is something else entirely. The effort to warn people of the end of the world at 6:00 pm on Saturday appears to have been for naught.
Or was it?
While he cannot speak for his readers, The Courtier will admit that he did sit down for a few minutes on Saturday afternoon and made an examination of conscience, and reflected on the many gifts he has been given. This was not because he believes in the concept of the “rapture” – not in the slightest. Rather he did so because the idea of the world coming to an end is something that, like an itch, a Christian sometimes needs to scratch.
Reflecting on the end of the world, rather than just our own death, removes us from our mundane concerns and occupations, even if only momentarily. It causes us to cast our minds, in their enfeebled way, over existence, our faults and frailties, and Heaven. When the end comes, it will be something more profound that we can at this time even hope to imagine, though people have been trying to imagine it in art for many centuries.
At a party the night prior to the non-rapture, a young music teacher at a local Catholic school asked what this writer thought the end of the world would look like. The response was, something not unlike the Ghent Altarpiece. “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, as the altarpiece is more properly known, was painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck over a number of years and completed in 1432. While not a “Last Judgement” or specifically an end-of-the-world scene, it does show Christ in glory as both prince and priest, and features a lower panel in which human figures adore the Lamb of God, as described in the Book of Revelation. The Courtier would like to believe that, in those few moments when the veil of the world is finally torn away but the actual Last Judgment has not yet taken place, something not unlike this scene as depicted by the van Eyck brothers may be what happens.
Naturally, this scrivener does not expect to see vaguely Lord of the Rings-looking figures, as the van Eycks have portrayed Christ, the Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, etc., though he does think the colors and the jewel-like qualities of the painting, with its almost hyper-real quality, are probably as good an approximation as we are likely to get. When time comes to an end, perhaps that intensity of color will be there as well, rather than the mottled qualities typically shown in “Last Judgement” paintings by Renaissance artists, who were often more concerned with showing off their knowledge of anatomy than trying to depict what happens as the old world passes away. If Michelangelo and Bosch, in their respective works, show us the separating of the sheep and the goats and Christ judging, we can think of the van Eycks showing us what happens just before that, when the heavens are opened and all is revealed for the first time.
While May 21st may not have gone with a bang, or even with an explosion in the amount of abandoned clothing and shoes strewn across pavements and telephone wires, we must not forget that for Christians, the end of the world is something which we must believe because Christ Himself promised that it would happen. The when, where, and how questions we cannot answer, and it is best to leave such things to the creative types among us: the artists, filmmakers, and writers whose inventiveness can try to capture something of this enormous, impending event. We may not know when it will happen or be able to fully prepare for it, but taking the time to periodically reflect on it – whether through false alarms like this one or through viewing works like the Ghent Altarpiece – is all the more to our eternal good.