Luke 21:20-28 - Is Christian Life Tragic?
Jesus said to his disciples: "When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, know that its desolation is at hand. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains. Let those within the city escape from it, and let those in the countryside not enter the city, for these days are the time of punishment when all the Scriptures are fulfilled. Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days, for a terrible calamity will come upon the earth and a wrathful judgment upon this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken as captives to all the Gentiles; and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand."
Tragedy. The kind of story that is kicked off by a catastrophe, which is then followed by an inexorable deterioration of the hero’s situation. While people enjoy reading or watching such tales, nobody wants to hear that such will be the fate of one’s own future. And yet this is what Jesus does: He predicts a future for His disciples which could hardly be any less attractive. He seems to see before His eyes the suffering of the thousands of martyrs. He sees the future of His people and predicts it. Is He seeing my future too? Is an armageddon coming for me too?
The protagonist of a tragedy usually strives to break free from the binding gravity of his dire fate, thus resisting the design of the gods. Despite all his efforts, the hero rarely succeeds in "hybris" as the guiding hand of the author seeks not so much the gratification of triumph but, at the contrary, his artistic “providence” shapes the tragedy in a way that lets the audience experience such sorrow and fright in the play that they are “purified” for life (katharsis). Is Jesus telling a tragedy in order to purify us through sorrow and fright? Does He want to shock us in order to wake us up?
The liturgy of these weeks, with its apocalyptic readings, certainly can have that effect on us. But Christ’s words are not merely a tragedy. The apocalyptic showdown which He describes is not simply a literary tool to shock us or frighten us. Rather, these Last Things - the apocalypse, Christ’s Second Coming, the Judgement, and the End of Times - are realities that actually await us. “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
Just as the inexorable gravity towards mishap in a tragedy, the Last Judgement is the inevitable point of gravity toward which history is drawn. And within the undertow of history, there are your life and mine and they too have only this one possible ending: Jesus. Look Him in the eyes today and discover that His presence in your life is no tragic tendency for mishaps but the exact contrary. Facing the inevitable end of the Last jusdment, you need not engage in hybris. Instead, “stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”
Jesus sees your sorrows. And He knows that what He offers will not take them away immediately. He knows that being His disciple is actually quite costly. Jesus does not wish to fool you into thinking that following Him is only butterflies and roses. But Jesus wants your truest happiness. This is why He does not want you to shy away from a life with trials. He wants to reassure you that, despite of them, you are on the right track if you follow Him.
Tragedies paint mishaps in the life of the hero so that they be avoided in real life. In that logic, real life is supposed to be balanced and peaceful now. Jesus predicts the Last Days not so that we can avoid them, but so that we integrate them into the equation of our life's story. He does not put the focus on the harmony of the present but on the trials of the future. The point of gravity for a good and happy human life is not so much the momentary balance, but the future judgment. The criterion for goodness is not only some harmonious sensation; goodness is what stands the test of Christ's last judgement. The joys which we build today might shutter. But what stands fast on the Last Day, will make us happy forever.
“Stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” Hold on to all that is good in you, and noble, and virtuous, and holy. That goodness will prevail in the storms that will come; it will stand fast and be held by the roots of your redeemed heart. The Last Judgement will shutter all the clay around it. In the end, only goodness will stand.