The Great Crisis
Thirty-third Sunday of the Year. Fr Oliver Keenan invites us to place all crises, great and small, within the context of the eternal Word.
Contemporary theologians and philosophers often situate their work relative to an identified crisis. There is a crisis in the university, a crisis of faith, a crisis of identity, innumerable political crises, a crisis of moral authority within the Church, and a crisis of climate catastrophe that threatens the planet itself. Although every age senses the unique precarity of its times, our generation senses that the times are seriously out of joint, perhaps even in an unprecedented way.
All these crises of our times demand theological attention. Certainly, nothing ought to minimise the present threat to human flourishing. In fact, just before the passage we read in today’s gospel, Jesus himself addresses precisely these sorts of crisis in which the fixed points of a social world have broken down: the collapse of the temple, the breakdown of family ties and biological bonds, and the failure of political systems. Now, however, Jesus turns to address a greater crisis, one of a quite different order. He moves from speaking of devastating crises that occur within history to a crisis that signals the end of history. It is not now the fixed points of a social world that are threatened, but the moving points by which all creaturely fixity is secured. With the return of the Son of Man, the heavenly bodies are put out of joint and their reliable movement—by which time is measured and history structured—has been put to an end. After this, nothing can happen—or at least nothing within a merely human history.
This Great Crisis is, however, presented as Good News. The history to which it belongs is not merely human, but a divine-human history of God’s bringing us to share in his own life, a mission that is focussed in the person of the Godman, Jesus Christ. Indeed, all of Jesus’s crisis-talk is contained by an earlier question that the disciples place before him: ‘when will it all be accomplished?’ The great crisis is not the moment of final devastation, then, but the consummation of Christ’s mission of re-creation. In other words, for the Christian, crisis is not a basic, inescapable, or final reality. Its destructive moments are ordered to the reception of something new and glorious. So our world is not one in which a perpetual clash of forces will bring about endless chaos until the moment of final annihilation. Crisis and disruption only exist relative to a point of stability that is infinitely greater than that offered even by what seem to be the most reliable movements or fixed points of the world. This infinitely reliable ‘point’ is the Word of God, a Word that never fails to accomplish that which is proclaimed, which is always seen to be creative and re-creative, never destructive. And this, Jesus says, ‘will not pass away,’ even if the ‘heavens and the earth will pass away.’
There is a risk that this could be taken to promote a facile, even evasive, hope, as if the crises of the present moment should be endured as a fleeting reality, signifying the onset of the birth pangs of a new and better era. Indeed, there is some spiritual value in re-framing the crises of our times, of asking how a particular crisis will look from the perspective of eternity, and thus moderating our response to it. But situating the crises of our day within the divine-human history that will be consummated in the great crisis of the last day should intensify their theological significance and certainly not dull our sense of moral obligation. Nonetheless, the parable of the fig tree brings this down to earth and connects the movement of divine-human history to the rhythms of biological life. The signs of new life in supple twigs and fragile leaves appear dramatically, but even an exhaustive description of what is happening would miss their relevance. Their deeper meaning would be missed unless these signs were referred to a broader world, in which they come to signify the arrival of Summer. And Summer itself has cultural resonances of promise and opportunity, thriving and flourishing.
So I am glad that theologians and philosophers will go on writing about crises, but my hope is that we avoid getting so caught up in the crisis that we miss the point. In fact, my suspicion is that the crises that matter most are the least accessible to us: not the crises of culture and politics about which we can opine at a (moderately) comfortable distance, but the crises of our own hearts, the places of sorrow and sadness and above all fear, which perhaps are known to the bearer alone. Here-and-now it is a discipline of the greatest courage to refer these by faith and hope to the broader divine-human history in which they take on new light. But the fact that nothing merely human can happen after the Great Crisis has a glorious flipside: nothing is impossible for God, and our resurrection into the divine-human future beyond the Great Crisis will certainly surpass even our wildest imaginings.
Image: ‘Mad Meg’ by Pieter Bruegel, 1561 (detail): Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp , inv./cat.nr 788