Those who believe we are living in the End Times are easy to caricature. You can imagine it, right? Long beard, cardboard sign, REPENT FOR THE END IS NEAR? But there are those of us who have long believed much the same thing, but more quietly, and without the wild-eyed optimism of the bearded man who believes he actually might be saving souls. We have looked at the way we live and seen its absolute unsustainability, the violence of its shoddy construction. We are pretty sure it’s too late. We turn inward, or towards family or a few friends. We believe in what might be called the Last Times.
The Last Times are different from the End Times. The End Times are cataclysm; the Last Times are tragedy. The End Times are supernatural; the Last Times are painfully, obviously human.
The pandemic is a long stretch in the Last Times, in the ways in which it has lain bare the rickety structures of civilization and turned our weary faces towards the times that we didn’t know would be Last for much later. I keep thinking of the Last Time I went to church (March 8th), and the Last Time I had dinner with my friend Alison (January 30th)—Last Times that weren’t clearly marked as such. But Judson ceased in-person services after that Sunday, and the pandemic and the baby separated Alison and I, and then she moved back to D.C. in August. These are small, quiet Last Times. There are others for those who lost loved ones to COVID before they could say goodbye, barred from hospitals where ventilators would prevent conversation anyway; there are others for those who lost their livelihoods with no sense of when they might return.
And there are the Last Times of those who are watching their homes and communities burn on the West Coast, in fires exacerbated if not caused by irresponsibility, short-sightedness, greed, denial. I’ve seen photos of these fires described as “apocalyptic,” but the better descriptor is “dystopian.” Human, not supernatural. Tragic, not cataclysmic. Within our control, at least somewhat, were it not for hubris.
What if our daughter was born in the Last Times? We couldn’t have known, as last summer was ending, what was ahead (although maybe we should have). When we discovered, a year ago today, that we would be expecting a child, our reaction was unalloyed joy. Never did we think that we would spend most of the third trimester away from the hugs and hearts of everyone we love most but each other. We did not anticipate her birth arriving in the midst of so much death and the shock waves emanating from it: the devastation in the wake of COVID-19 and the righteous rage against police brutality. We did not think we would celebrate her passage out of the newborn stage as the world literally burned. But, again, maybe we should have. The fault lines—environmental, social, political, economic—have been evident for some time. That we believed, however unconsciously, we could pass through untouched is another mark of our privilege.
What if? The answer must be in the same humanity revealed in all its fragility and frailty by the Last Times. We have opportunities, small and large, to reject the lies of empire, the greatest one being that we are alone. It has never looked more like we are alone. We have spent so much time alone during the pandemic that aloneness begins to look and feel like the natural way of things. I have felt alone as I try, fruitlessly, to soothe a crying baby, to see more than a few days in front of me after months of tattered sleep. I think of those who died alone of COVID-19, of families who have lost everything in the fires. I think, even, of Jesus. Even Jesus in his final, terrible, vulnerable moments, when even God in human flesh came to die—even he found himself believing empire’s lie. Why have you forsaken me? he asked.
To reject this great lie looks like coming together for a picnic in the park—on separate blankets but in common cause. It looks like humbling ourselves before those we would discard as criminals and lost causes to thank them for their service and ask them to rejoin society with reason to hope. It looks like teaching our children to giggle and roll over because someday they will be asked to do much more. It looks like logging on to yet another Zoom brunch and church service on Sunday morning, though the novelty of online church has long worn thin, to keep up our connection to the people who want to stay connected to us in spite of it all.
If these are the Last Times, let us face them with the honesty and companionship that empire would deny us. If we can be together, even in small ways, even if not in the ways we’d like, we continue to uncover the great lie. We honor the sacrifices of our fellows and the lonely death of Jesus. We prolong the life of this world and look forward to that of the next with joy rather than desperation. We put out the fires.