Not the End of the World

Not the End of the World

Thirty-Third Sunday of the Year. Fr Peter Hunter gives us some reassuring, but also challenging, words.

‘It’s not the end of the world.’ There are all sorts of ways of using that phrase. It can be a way of telling something that what they’ve done isn’t as bad as it seems. It can also be used-lazily, callously-in talking to someone who has lost someone they have loved. Callously, because for someone who really has lost someone close when a relationship comes to an end or through death, their world has come to an end in a significant way.

Human beings live in a physical world and that world of course goes on without notice when these tragedies come upon us. That can seem entirely wrong, scandalous even, because for us, there has been some kind of definitive end. ‘Stop all the clocks,’ as Auden says in his poem of the same name about the death of a lover. Time, he seems to be saying, shouldn’t go on anymore. It’s the end of the world.

All this is to say that our human world is shaped of course by the ordinary physical world around us, but our lives are shaped most of all by people, by the relationships we form, by the people we love. They come to be our world, in large part. And if we love God, the love of God (ours for him and even more, his for us) can form – transform – our world to an incalculable extent.

Human love often seems fraught with danger. Loving makes you vulnerable, just because it shapes you in such a dramatic way. We say, ‘Better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all,’ but I suspect that in the moment of loss, most of us feel the opposite: better not to love. Better not to allow anyone too close, because when we do, we open ourselves up to the possibility of being awfully, dreadfully hurt.

Part of the problem is that we have some rather foolish views about love. We use the same word for the intoxicating emotions of loving and for the day-to-day, rather practical, business of acting constantly for the other’s happiness. Bertrand Russell records in his diaries that while cycling, he stopped at the traffic light and suddenly realised he didn’t love his wife anymore. But whatever love is, it isn’t the kind of thing that can pass away in that way. ‘Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom,’ as Shakespeare wrote.

And that’s what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel. The Gospel readings at this time of year can sound rather forbidding, because they are about the end of world, in the sense of the end of time, the last days. But actually, if you listen carefully to what’s being said by Jesus today, while he is telling us of dramatic times to come, he is also constantly telling us not to fear them.

‘Do not be terrified’. ‘Not a hair on your head will be destroyed.’ Why should we not be terrified? Jesus is talking about the end of everything that we know. And before that are to come wars and earthquakes, and the prospect of being hauled up in front of kings and governors to explain ourselves. How can that not be terrifying?

Because we have a sure hope that it won’t be the end of the world. At least, it won’t be the end of our world. I’m not saying that it’s foolish to fear the loss of this world because you will have another world, a life in heaven, as if heaven were like another city, only not the rather grotty one we happen to live in. I’m saying that for those who love God, who are secure in the love that God has for us, our world will never end.

Even when we are foolish, and give up on love, even when we do that most horrible thing of hurting the very people who love us most, even then, God is loving us. And, if we return to that love, then because God’s love is utterly secure and unchanging, whatever else happens it will never be the end of the world.

Readings:Malachi 4:1-2|2 Thessalonians 3:7-12|Luke 21:5-19

fr. Peter Hunter teaches philosophy at Blackfriars, Oxford, and in Jamaica.