Saturday, May 21, 2011

Beaming Up and Climbing Out

During a trip to Italy during college, I was looking at a painting of the last judgment. I remarked to the professor next to me, a priest, "Isn't it strange that at that time people actually believed that they would climb out of their tombs like that at the end of the world?"

The priest corrected me, noting that in the Catholic faith, per the Apostle's Creed and many other texts, the "resurrection of the body" means just that. Climbing out of the tomb.

I didn't know what to say after that. It's like the transubstantiation of the Eucharist, or the incorruptability of certain saints' bodies. It's easy to believe that two thousand years ago, "one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change" (as described in HHGTG). It's hard to believe that after your body has been decomposing for years, your soul will reunite with it, you will make your way out of the ground, and you will look awesome. (The painter had been very generous to his subjects in that respect).

It's 7:39 p.m., and it would seem that for most of the world, now including the Eastern Time Zone of the United States, Harold Camping's prophesied Rapture has not occurred.

I guess that's pretty good news.

Camping's having assigned the end of days a day and date made this prediction perfect for ridicule. Camping served up a perfect litmus test - on May 21st, at 6:00 p.m., the world would either end, or it wouldn't.

If he had simply said that no one but God knows when the end of days will occur, then he and many Christians around the world could nod in agreement. In the Gospel According to Mark 13:32, on the question of Christ's return, it is written "But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone."

The difference between Camping and many other Christians is one of timing. By Mark's telling above, the end of the world could just as well have been today at 6:00 p.m. No one knows and it could be any time, why not May 21st.

Or any other minute of any other day.

And then, it is said that when that time comes, persons won't be beamed to heaven. Bodies will in glorified form climb out of graves- "in the resurrection God will give incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul"(Catechism of the Catholic Church).

Camping does not seem to have been a credible guy. Especially since by now he's 0 and 2. But it's worth noting that what invited ridicule was that he actively preached that the end was imminent, and he set a date at which he could be either proven or disproven. I'm glad that he was wrong, but I believe that if you remove the "date certain" part of Camping's predictions, in the news and in our conversations, we're left with plenty of jokes about a Biblical end of the world- an event that Christian faiths believe could happen at any time.

So for Christians, and for perhaps persons of other faiths as well, if their tradition includes a foretelling of the end of days, it is worth revisiting what we actually do believe about the end of the world. We've been confronted with the idea of it, had a good laugh, but it's reason to take a pause and think about what in our faiths' foretellings seem incredulous, unbelievable, or on the other hand, downright essential to that faith.

In the Catholic context, I understand that the second coming and the resurrection of the body are extremely important. But like when I was looking at the painting of the good looking people climbing out of their tombs, at least as of right now, I don't quite know what about it I can say that I believe with certainty.