I mention this because there is a phrase in the Gospel of Mark that I can only hear, pronounce, or even silently read with a fatherpaulish inflection. In fact, whenever I read it, suddenly Jesus loses his beard and long hair, leans back, lowers his chin, clears his throat, and in a distinctly Oxford accent, he rumbles: “Learn a lesson from the fig tree.” Then I imagine Jesus’ disciples, endeared and amused saying to one another, “That is going straight in the senior quotes.”
Turns out, even though it may sound like a silly way to start a sermon, Christ is referring to something deadly serious: the end of the world—a time when the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken…” A dark and a frightening time in many ways not unlike our own. In Paris right now, I imagine that it feels very much as though the sun is darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars have fallen from the sky. But here’s the catch: at such a time there is also, mysteriously, great joy because the followers of Jesus know that some day soon they will see Him in all his “great power and glory” calling them out of this present darkness into the light of the Truth.
But Christ warns us, “no one knows the day or the hour” that this will happen—“neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” And here again, in spite of myself, I find Father Paul Kidner creeping back into my sermon because this past summer, Father Paul showed me a photograph that perfectly sums up all the joy, fear, apprehension and hope of Christ’s apocalyptic message. It is a photograph of Father Paul dressed in full fishing gear, beaming, noble, exultant, holding a magnificent salmon that he has just pulled from an Alaskan river. Behind him, in the bushes, about thirty yards away, peering at that salmon with ineffable longing, unbeknownst to Father Paul is a grizzly bear.
The longer I look at it, the more layers of apocalyptic meaning I uncover. Think, for example, of the salmon. For its entire life, it has been anticipating its homecoming, only to find that death and home…are one and the same thing. For the bear too there are apocalyptic implications, for his is an experience of unfulfilled longing and the anticipation of a destiny that is just beyond his reach. For Father Paul, of course, it represents the culmination of countless hours of relentless perseverance and prayer, fused mysteriously and at the very last moment with a dawning awareness of his own mortality.
The apocalypse is all these things: homecoming, judgment, mystery, fear, joy... And even if we see it coming, Christ assures us that it will come as a surprise. Saint Ephram wrote, “Jesus hid the time from us so that we would be on the watch and so that each of us might think that the coming will happen in his own lifetime.” For Father Paul, it nearly did this summer. For any one of us, it could occur today. “You shall die,” wrote Saint Francis de Sales, “and sooner than you think.” We will all in our lifetimes, see the end of the world. You may long for it like Father Paul’s grizzly, rejoice in it like Father Paul himself, or find yourself like that salmon, helpless in the hands of a righteous god. But even if you know the time and place of your homecoming, even if you work long and hard for it, fighting the tides and currents of this present world; even if you anticipate that homecoming with every fiber of your being; even then, "be vigilant because no one knows when the exact moment will be" when the creator will pluck you from the river of life and lift you, smiling for your last portrait.
Year passes after year silently,” wrote Saint John Newman. “Christ's coming is ever nearer than it was. …Resolve to be no longer beguiled by "shadows of religion," by words, or by disputings, or by notions, or by high professions, or by excuses, or by the world's promises or threats. Pray Him to give you what Scripture calls "an honest and good heart," and, without waiting, begin at once to obey Him with the best heart you have. Any obedience is better than none… He is behind this material framework; earth and sky are but a veil going between Him and us; the day will come when He will rend that veil, and show Himself to us. And then, according as we have waited for Him, will He recompense us. If we have forgotten Him, He will not know us; but "blessed are those servants whom the Lord, when He comes, shall find watching … He shall gird Himself, and make them sit down to eat, and will come forth and serve them. And if He shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants," [Luke xii. 37, 38.] May this be the portion of every one of us! It is hard to attain it; but it is woeful to fail. Life is short; death is certain; and the world to come is everlasting.