In the year 169 BC, the Greek king, Antiochus Epiphanes, whose empire covered even Palestine during that time,
…arrogantly entered the sanctuary and took the golden altar, the lampstand for the light, and all its utensils. He took also the table for the bread of the Presence, the cups for drink offerings, the bowls, the golden censers, the curtain, the crowns, and the gold decoration on the front of the temple; he stripped it all off. He took the silver and the gold, and the costly vessels; he took also the hidden treasures which he found…He committed deeds of murder, and spoke with great arrogance (1 Macc 1:21-24).
Not only that, but two years later, the king erected a desolating sacrilege upon the altar of burnt offerings (1 Macc 1:54), about which the prophet Daniel speaks—a statue of the Greek god Zeus, known in Rome as Jupiter—an extremely grave sacrilege, then, he unleashed a harsh persecution on the Jews.
Jesus speaks repeatedly about sacrilege and invites his listeners to understand ever more profoundly the prophecies. In fact, in the year 70 AD, the city of Jerusalem was completed destroyed by the Romans, palaces were burned, the temple razed to the ground, the ground sown with salt; men, women, and children were murdered by the sword; their blood was scattered like water throughout Jerusalem and no one was buried there. Jesus, prophesying this calamity, said: the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down (Lk 21:6). It was a period of great darkness, characterized by wars, revolutions, earthquakes, famine, pestilence, terrifying events, and great signs from heaven: it looked like the end of the world.
In the year 568 AD, the Lombards, a barbarous and cruel people, invaded the Italian peninsula. St. Gregory the Great, in his Dialogues, described the total desolation which pervaded in that day. A bishop named Redemptus had a vision regarding the end of the world, and St. Gregory retells it:
…and straight after, those fearful sights in heaven followed; to wit, fiery lances, and armies appearing from the north. Straight after likewise the barbarous and cruel nation of the Lombards, drawn as a sword out of a sheath, left their own country, and invaded ours: by reason whereof the people, which before for the huge multitude were like to thick corn-fields, remain now withered and overthrown: for cities were wasted, towns and villages spoiled, churches burnt, monasteries of men and women destroyed, farms left desolate, and the country remained solitary and void of men to till the ground, and destitute of all inhabitants: beasts possessing those places, where before great plenty of men did dwell. And how it went in other parts of the world I know not, but here in this place where we live, the world did not foretell any end, but rather showed that which is present and already come.(Dialogues, III, 38,3).
It looked like the end of the world.
Let’s skip many centuries and arrive to our day, today. It seems the global economic crisis will never end; there are interminable wars in all parts of the world; the Church is cruelly persecuted in certain countries, including robbery, torture, murder, and the destruction of entire communities. Moreover, in recent years, there have been many natural disasters: floods, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, epidemics, and so on. Through mass media an apocalyptic spectacle of terrifying events has been presented to the world and great signs come from the sky. It really looks like the end of the world.
What is our response to such a shocking and horrifying perspective? When it seems that the world is about to collapse, what should we think, how should we react? St. Gregory provides us with the key. He says,
Wherefore so much the more zealously ought we to seek after eternal things, by how much we find all temporal so quickly to be fled and gone. Surely were this world to be condemned, although it did flatter us, and with pleasant prosperity contented our mind: but now, seeing it is fraught with so many miseries and diverse afflictions, and that our sorrows and crosses do daily increase and be doubled, what did it else but cry unto us that we should not love it? (Dialogues III, 38, 4).
Do not love the world: that’s the key! Or better yet, enjoy the world, not as an end in itself, but as good in itself, and as an instrument, as a sign, as a sacrament of what is beyond. In fact, we will have true happiness in this world, only if we have our heart fixed on the world to come. We will know how to correctly value earthly things in the measure in which we yearn for heavenly things.
But, there is a paradox here that is very interesting: to explain better, I will give you an example. On the one hand, the monastic vocation is recognized by many as a life detached from the world, a fuga mundi, a certain wariness of the values of the world. On the other hand, monks are renowned for meticulously taking care of monasteries, churches, the soil, books, tools, and all of the material things of the monastery, because St. Benedict insists: “let the monk regard all the vessels of the monastery and all its substance, as if they were sacred vessels of the altar” (RB 31).
Apparently there seems to be a contradiction to despise the world, on the one hand, and treat material things with the greatest care and concern on the other. But, it’s not a contradiction, but a proof of the previously formulated principle: “we will know how to correctly value earthly things in the measure in which we yearn for heavenly things,” precisely because that which is created is a sacramental sign that points us to the Creator. If we love the created thing disproportionately, then we lose everything. But, if our fatherland is in heaven, then the created order will become for us a luminous sign of the presence of God.
Maybe the end of the world is coming. Maybe it’s not. In any event, our responsibility is to keep our hearts raised. Sursum corda! Lift up your hearts! If we do this, everything will be just fine, our eyes will see the face of God, and we will be similar to him, and we will sing forever his praise in the new heavens and the new earth, because the old heaven and earth are about to pass away.
(Translated from the original Italian by B. Gonzalez.)