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Miami, finals, the apocalypse

Fr. Lou DelFra | Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sitting, pacing, kneeling before my TV while viewing the ND versus USC game, I detected a marked difference in my stomach from any other game this season. Gone was the comforting illusion that, even if we lost, we’d have time to make up the drop in the rankings in the next weeks. Gone was the therapeutic excuse: “Well, even if we lose, we’ve far surpassed everyone’s expectations.” As the Irish took the field, unlike any other game this year, there was nothing I could really feel other than: “It’s within our grasp. And there’s nothing to do but win.” There’s something about finality, ultimacy, that brings what’s essential into the sharpest focus.

Most of us are living this reality intensely. The end of the semester generates precisely the same dynamic. Where once students spent a free moment watching a YouTube clip, they now spend it calculating the exact number of pages they have to write before they leave for Christmas. Exam schedules are plotted out and blocs of free time are bracketed for study. Many distractions and most excuses to procrastinate are closeted away for a couple weeks, as our minds and energies hone in on the last push. Such is the usual effect of “the final moment.”

We are in the last days of the year. Advent – the beginning of the new Church year, as we begin again to wait with the expectant Mary for the birth of Christ – begins this Sunday.The readings at Mass during these final days are about the final days, the end of time, the last moment. They take on the urgency and the almost brutal focus that befalls us when we come to the final moment of anything of drastic importance.

This coming Sunday’s Gospel will not be of particular comfort to most of us as we approach finals week, for Christ warns: “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. 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 obvious reasons, this genre of writing is called “apocalyptic.” We can easily identify its most apparent quality – a description of the cataclysmic ending of the world. Yet, if this description is the total purpose of apocalyptic writing, it would seem to have a most limited usefulness. It would be, from a practical standpoint, mostly irrelevant every year of the earth’s existence except one. And the year it is relevant, no one is going to have much time to be reading about it. What good does it do today to conjure up dreadful images about the end of the world? To the extent that we accept it’s inevitable, images of the apocalypse seem to fill us mostly with a paralyzing dread and despair. Yet, I suspect there is something more to be learned from the apocalyptic writings of our Scriptures, including some important wisdom that can benefit us in the here and now.

As I sat back exultantly and celebrated the Irish win last Saturday, my insides finally unclenched for the first time all night. As I listened to the player interviews, I realized that one of the most amazing things about a championship team is that it has been able to summon the ultimate focus I was only willing to experience in the final game, only for every game this season. It turns out, in hindsight, that my insight during the USC game that “Every play tonight might determine whether we go to South Beach” was true of every play this season. The knowledge of what was most essential was able to drive the Irish for the 11 weeks prior.

The same goes for finals week. There is something undeniably ultimate (cataclysmic?!) about it. Though the cramming of the final two weeks is necessary and perhaps to some extent educationally effective, the real and lasting educational formation of any course you complete this December has likely been much more the result of the sustained focus you placed on it over the first 13 weeks of the semester.

Although the term “apocalypse” is characterized by descriptions of the end of all things, it comes from a Greek word meaning “to uncover,” “to strip back,” “to reveal what is finally essential.” As it turns out, what is “finally essential” about most of our endeavors, whether it be a football season, our studies or our relationship with God and one another, is present not just at the end of their time. The essential is present from the beginning, just buried under sometimes countless, less essential distractions. Perhaps the apocalyptic writings of our Scriptures seek to enkindle in us the urgency to uncover the essential now. So, in the end, when ultimacy forces the essential upon us, we can accept it rather familiarly, with the confidence that comes from having tried to live in it all along. As Christ also exhorts in this Sunday’s Gospel: “When these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads for your redemption is at hand.” It is the same redemption Christ offers to us right now.

Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, is a campus minister and the Director of Pastoral Life for the ACE Program. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.