What do stockbrokers and fortune-tellers have in common? The answer, of course, is that they both try to predict the future.
Stockbrokers, financial analysts and many economists all try to discern the future development of commerce, trade and industry. Yet these professionals still get taken by surprise. Sometimes it seems as if the experts are no better at predicting the future than a gypsy lady reading palms, despite having a huge amount of data at their command. To take one current example, very recently Dubai was being touted as an economic miracle. Suddenly it is in serious financial trouble. The future represents the ultimate unknown. As the popular song of our parents’ era used to say, ‘Que sera sera, what will be will be.’ Sometimes the future and its uncertainty can cast a pall of gloom over us, and certainly the gospel today can add to that feeling, with its mention of men dying of fear (Luke 21.25-28, 34-36).
As I said before, apocalyptic literature deals with the end times and the final revelation of God’s will. But look more closely at the gospel today you will see that Jesus intends to bring not fear, but hope and encouragement.
Notice, for example, what he tells his followers to do in difficult times. He says, hold your heads high. Hardship, persecution or uncertainty can all rob us of self-confidence. But as sons and daughters of God we have a dignity that no one can remove. I remember a priest diagnosed with a terrible and implacable brain disease. He was warned that one of its most distressing effects could be personality change. He was appalled, but in a letter to his friends he wrote that he was comforted by the knowledge that in the citadel of his soul he was most truly who he was. Here God would always preserve him and hold him.
Jesus also tells us to watch ... stay awake. Even when events sweep the world we are rarely helpless. To those who are alert, there are always possibilities that might not be noticed by the pessimists or fatalists. Occasionally we read of sects which announce the end of the world and then sit back to await it. This gets apocalyptic completely wrong. Warnings like those we hear in the gospel are to stir us into taking our lives more seriously. If the end of time is around the corner, then we will want to take time more seriously, so that we make the best use of what is left to us. If God’s eternal will and purposes are going to be revealed, then we will want to be sure that we have tried to live lives worthy of God. Which leads us to another Advent reflection, namely that death is what awaits all of us. Whether time runs out for the whole world in our lifetime or not, we can be sure of one thing: it will run out for us individually. A sombre, thought, but one that frees us to make priorities. It helps us think about what we do that will last. It invites us to make a difference with our lives. No wonder Jesus says to us: watch yourselves. Do not get so swallowed up by the cares and pressures of this world that we forget the backdrop of eternity, into which we shall one day enter, in the mercy of God.
Fr Terry Tastard is parish priest (pastor) of Holy Trinity, Brook Green, in the Hammersmith area of London. His new book Ronald Knox and English Catholicism is published by Gracewing at £12.99 and is available on Amazon, from religious booksellers and from the publisher.