He also told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. As soon as they have put out shoots, you can see and know for yourselves that summer is already near. The same is the case for you. When you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near. . . . Pay attention to yourselves!”
Luke 21: 29-31, 34
Come late February every year, I find my attention focusing on the tree branches which have been starkly bare for the past four months or so. Without fail, my heart seems to awaken and leap up when I see the first signs of new growth and swelling buds. Each and every late winter and spring there is, especially for those of us who live in temperate and cold climates, an experience of being reborn, of awakening to life anew after the cold and sleepy weeks of late autumn and winter. Especially at first, however, one must look very closely to see the small and just barely discernible signs of new growth. What is required to see the promise of new life in the future is a very vigilant and careful attention to what is right before one’s eyes in the present.
These closing days of the liturgical year we are flung into an apocalyptic spirit. It is very easy for us as human beings to strain to take literal meaning from writings that speak of the future. The reason is quite evident. When we are immersed in our daily lives without reflection, we live within a somewhat comfortable milieu of the illusion of our own immortality. Yet, when when our external situation or personal experience pulls us out of our typical sense of embeddedness, we become anxious. Jesus tells us not to “worry about tomorrow” (Mt. 6: 34) because he knows full well that thoughts of the future frighten us. Our fear for our own future is one of the most powerful motivations within us. All it takes to recognize this is a few moments of observation of television advertising during the evening news.
The consistent and enduring appeal of anyone or any text that claims to foretell the future speaks to our need to find some relief from the insistent experience of anxiety that thoughts of the future evoke in us. This is precisely why, without any real scriptural evidence, we entertain bizarre and manipulative interpretations of the apocalyptic texts as predictors of the future. The relishing of pseudo-preachers and biblical interpreters in the horrible judgment and punishment of their own feared and despised others are but a manifestation of a lack of sufficient faith to bear with their own anxiety. Their potential appeal to all of us lies, in the same way, in our own anxiety about our future and, finally, our own death.
For us who live and suffer, as Jesus did, the human experience, faith is the capacity to trust in the face of our persistent experience of anxiety. it is to realize, as Luke’s account of the coming of the kingdom illustrates, that it is by deepening our faith, hope, and love in the present that we can trust in the future. To know the nearness of the Kingdom here and now is to realize that, as much as we “naturally” fear the unknown that is ahead of us, the love that holds and upholds our lives in all we are going through will be faithful to the (and to our) end.
As an undergraduate student, I had a theology teacher who used to refer to what he termed “the myth of a happy childhood.” Although perhaps a bit too cynical a perspective, it does reflect a certain truth in my own experience. Although brought up by very loving parents, I experienced throughout childhood, as I suspect most do, a certain pervasive tentativeness about life. In fact, we are often told that this reality is the reason why there are children’s stories of monsters of various types. These fictional monsters offer children a specific focus that their generalized anxieties may be converted into specific fears. As I reflect, I think of the childhood propensity to totalize and catastrophize. When a parent would fall physically or emotionally ill, or when our parents would angrily argue and disagree, we would feel a sense of impending doom, as if our whole world was about to collapse. As children we are not yet able, with our own resources, really “to bear with the harshness of reality.” When the harshness enters in, it is if the world, as we need it to be, has come to an end.
Our capacity for transcendent reflection, for developing a faith that begins to color all of our life and experience, grows over time. As children we are dependent, as we recognize in infant baptism, on the faith of the adults who surround us. As we grow, however, we can come to recognize and so to trust the nearness and even the presence of the “kingdom” in every aspect of our present life and world. We grow in this capacity for transcendence in the measure that we “pay attention.” We must develop a vigilance to the presence in the present that is consistent and enduring. Our prayer must become the prayer of the Blind Beggar, “Lord, I want to see” (Luke 18: 41). “To see” with the eyes of faith is to realize that wherever we stand in the moment and whatever we are undergoing “the kingdom is near,” and “God is with us.” We need not know the future because we already know its outcome.
One who rows a boat turns his back to the goal towards which he labors. So it is with the next day. When by the help of eternity one lives absorbed in today, the more decisively he turns his back upon the next day, so that he does not see it at all. If he turns around, eternity is confused before his eyes, it becomes the next day. But if for the sake of laboring more effectually towards the goal (eternity) he turns his back, he does not see the next day at all. By the help of eternity he sees quite clearly today and its task. . . .
You might think that the believer would be very far from the eternal when he turns his back to it and lives today, while the glimpser stands and looks towards it. And yet it is the believer who is nearest the eternal, while the apocalyptic visionary is farthest from the eternal. Faith turns its back to the eternal in order precisely to have this with him today.
Soren Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses, 75, 77