Carroll Stuhmueller, a Scripture scholar, often reminded his students, "When prophecy dies, apocalyptic comes to life." We see that happening in Sunday's first and third readings.

Our sacred authors believed prophecy is how we discover God's will. Hans Walter Wolff perfectly described the process: "The prophet reminds us of the future implications of our present actions." Bruce Vawter expressed the same concept with a different twist: "The prophet is the conscience of the people, telling us day by day what God expects us to do."

The apocalyptic, on the other hand, revolves around "heavenly mysteries." It's concerned with what happens after death or how the world will end. This secret revelation is given in visions and wrapped in esoteric concepts. The revealer uses words and images that only the "initiated" understand.

Sun-day

We only have two apocalyptic books in our Bible: Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures and Revela-tion in the Christian. But we find apocalyptic passages in many other writings, including Malachi 3 and Luke 21.

In Malachi 3: 19-20, Yahweh hands out punishments and rewards on a future "day," using the sun as both the punisher and the rewarder. It will set the evil "on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch." At the same time, it becomes a "sun of justice" for the good, covering them "with its healing rays."

Luke changes Malachi's "day" into "the days" the Jerusalem temple will be destroyed, when "there will not be a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down" (Lk 21: 5-19).

The mystery deepens when Jesus responds to the question, "When will this happen?" He answers in classic apocalyptic terms: "See that you not be deceived. For many will come in my name saying, 'I am he,' and 'The time has come!' Do not follow them! When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end."

Luke finishes his apocalyptic passage with a prediction of wars, earthquakes, famines and plagues, then delivers a secretive warning about sights and signs which "will come from the sky."

Yet, even in the midst of this dire forecast, Jesus mentions something that some in His community have already experienced: persecution. In contrast to the world's end, Jesus' followers can prepare for this situation. They're to expect the worst from those around them, yet they're not to worry about their defense. The risen Jesus will take care of that.

Prophecy

Squeezed between these two apocalyptic passages is one of our Christian Scriptures' most down-to-earth, prophetic sections (II Thes 3: 7-12).

Though the author still holds onto the ideal of community living for all Christians, he's experienced enough with that lifestyle to know its problems. "We instructed you," he writes, "that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat." Then he quickly adds, "We hear some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others." Both actions tear a community apart.

Apocalyptic views dominated the Church before Vatican II in the 1960s. We were worried about the Fatima Letter's secret message, eager to hear about visions, certain God would punish us with nuclear destruction because of our immodest fashions.

Such fears were relegated to the perimeters of our faith once the Council began. We replaced the apocalyptic with prophecy. For the first time in my life, we prophetically began to critique Church practices and traditions.

(11/11/04)