THE SOLEMNITY OF CHRIST THE KING this year gives us again the great vision of Daniel: Son of Man coming on the clouds to receive universal kingship from the Ancient of Days. Christ’s appropriating the title Son of Man means that Daniel’s vision was of Christ’s coming, not his first but his second coming at the end of time. All of us, at least of a certain age, will have studied W.B.Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming. Lines from that poem seem especially resonant today:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; …
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: …
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
… all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; …
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Yeats’ vision could have been—and maybe it is—of the Church in our day. The poem is short and deserves reading in full, but the words quoted above provoke in me the most reflection.
Certainly the Church seems to be falling apart, with the numbers of her children falling suddenly and precipitously in the her historic heartlands. The orthodox centre seems to be reduced to a near-pathetic rump as two rival factions move to increasingly more contradictory and antagonistic positions. Yeats’ vision is of the coming, not of Christ, but of antichrist, that biblical figure Catholics do not like to talk about, perhaps because so many Protestant leaders identified the pope as the antichrist!
Yet antichrist is part of Catholic teaching, because it is inescapably biblical. The antichrist, the teaching on whom pervades the Book of Revelation, is prophesied as coming in advance of Christ’s Second Coming, its necessary prelude. The antichrist will be human, not a demon, a false Christ, in an equally attractive guise. His rhetoric will be powerful and persuasive, full of apparent hope, but it will be intrinsically opposed to the gospel and to God even as he seeks to clothe himself with divine approbation. His message and rhetoric will be utterly secular despite its prima facie attractiveness. His coming will herald the time of what Revelation calls the Great Tribulation.
Yeats wrote this poem in 1921, in the wake of the Great War, the Bolshevik revolution, social and political chaos in Europe, and with the Great Depression less than a decade away. Yeats looked at the world and wondered aloud if Revelation was being fulfilled in his day.
Today, we might look not only in the world, but in the Church as well (a thought which doubtlessly would never have occured to Yeats). Perhaps the “falling apart” of the Church—the sort of mess that Pope Francis seems to want people to make—is the truer sign of the end times. This is no prophecy on my part, only conjecture, let the reader understand. We know not the day or the hour.
In Luke 18:8, Christ makes a reference to his second coming that should arrest our attention:
(w)hen the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
Will he indeed? Yeats’ words echo in my head in response:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
This seems an apt description of the bulk of the Church, but even more, the bulk of the college of bishops. Any passion in the Church, and especially among the bishops, seems to be for mostly secular concerns, even if they conflict with the clear teaching of Christ himself. At best, they want the Church to accomodate to worldly priorities; at worst, to convert to them. Sexuality, the integrity of human life, the environment—these are all areas in which the Church, and especially her bishops, seem to have mostly lost their Christian voice, finding only a secular one. We no longer seek to convert the world, but befriend the world. We want to fit in. The Old Testament tells us clearly enough what befell Israel when it sought “to be like other nations.”
This is not intended as a bishop-bash. Bishops are as much as symptom as a cause of the current plight of the Church. My concern centres on those Christians—and yes, bishops especially—who are of the best, but “lack all conviction.” As the adage goes, evil prospers when the good do nothing.
Originally my diagnosis was that our bishops—and way too many of us—did not have the courage of their convictions. Our convictions are born of our faith, the fruit of what we believe utterly to be true. When faith is weak, then inevitably so too is conviction.
However, my thinking has taken a darker turn. Surely, true conviction feeds courage. Perhaps, then, the problem is not so much that we do not have the courage of our convictions, but that we do not have sufficient conviction to produce courage? Our conviction is the measure of our faith.
So, if the Son of Man were to come again today, would he find much faith on earth?
We have so little courage because we have so little conviction; our meagre conviction betrays our meagre faith. Is it any wonder the people of God wander from her fold, when her shepherds—our leaders—manifest more concern to win the world’s estimation than God’s?
Meagre courage; meagre conviction; meagre faith. Is this our lot for now?
Of course, God wins the war in the end. Yet for those stuck on the field of today’s battle, feeling alone and increasingly bereft of support, that is not always the comfort it should otherwise be.
In 2 Thessalonians 2 St Paul speaks of the antichrist as “the man of lawlessness,” from the Greek anomos, “without law.” The man of chaos we might say, or the man of mess. What becomes apparent is that St Paul conceives of the lawless one as emerging from within the Church, and taking “his seat in the temple of God.”
Until I read Giorgio Agamben’s The Mystery of Evil: Benedict XVI and the End of Days earlier this year, I had barely heard of Tyconius, who flourished in the latter half of the fourth century. But St Augustine seems to have been familiar with his works, and through this apparent link, Benedict XVI was acquainted with him. Reflecting on Song of Songs 1:5, “I am dark but beautiful,” Tyconius (in his Liber Regularum, II) taught that the earthly Body of Christ—the Church Militant we might say—is bipartite: it is composed of both the light of Christ and the darkness of evil. In other words, we might say that it is at the same time the Body of Christ and the Body of Antichrist. In his City of God, St Augustine wrote of the ecclesia permixta, the Church in which evil is mingled with sanctity; a conflicted Church. It is thus that the Church is destined to remain until the Last Times, when the antichrist is revealed, the great tribulation is loosed upon the world, and Christ finally conquers once and for all, bringing about the kingdom of God in a new creation.
Now I am not saying that our day is that predicted by St Paul and St John. Yet, if we are called to read the signs of the times (as John XXIII bade the Church do at the Council he convoked), we might do well to revisit the scriptures, not least those that Catholics tend to shy away from as being too tainted by Protestant obsession. Some say the Council got it wrong. More likely to me is that we got the Council wrong. But that is another argument…
St Paul, St John, Tyconius, St Augustine, the Song of Songs indeed, offer us a way to make some sense of the Church in our day, even if they might not offer us much comfort in the process.
One could say more, but discretion is finally kicking in.