How much longer? It is easy to understand how it would be the question for people “In those days after that tribulation [when] the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” It is not a stretch to imagine how in the midst of such terrible days, even the faithful people will lament, “How much longer?”
It’s certainly not a new question. In fact, it’s one that has lingered in the minds of people throughout all history. Adam and Eve…. how much longer do we live in shame? Noah…. till I find dry land and a new start? Abraham and Sarah…. till we have a family to call our own? Moses and Aaron…. till we reach the promised land? The question is repeated throughout salvation history. “How much longer” is a question belonging to anyone who simply longs to be redeemed. It’s for anyone who wants a complete life in an incomplete world.
It’s the question we all ask from time to time. In the midst of the epic and apocalyptic down to the mundane and even the ridiculous. We have all asked the question. I have uttered those words as a petulant child in the backseat of the family car. “Are we there yet? How much longer?” It was a plaintive cry in the weeks and days before Christmas. It is a flexible question covering impatience and joyful anticipation, but also dread and anxiety.
I have heard it expressed in words, in the shrug of a shoulder, and in the grim determination of a cancer patient enduring yet another round of treatments. It is spoken by the unemployed single parent anxiously looking for work, teetering on the edge of despair. In our nation, it is a pleading by victims of the Northern California fires in the never-ending seasons of fire. It is the question lingering in Mexico Beach, Florida. It is the exhausted plea of the people of Syria. It is the question of the victims of priestly abuse seeking justice and peace. How much longer?
In biblical times and modern times, it is the question, spoken in our humanity, that challenges that most intrinsic of component of the divine within us: our trust in God who in times of tribulation can seem absent. We want our question of “How much longer?” to be answered with “… they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory, … send[ing] out the angels [to] gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.”
We want the Son of Man right now in great power and glory. We want angels to lend comfort and courage. And all the better if it unfolds as a blockbuster event with Surround-Sound Imax 360 cinematography.
But I tell you, just as did our readings, in the times of tribulation “… the wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.”
Stars forever, shinning in all the out-of-the-way places – far from the center stage of world view. It is tucked away on the cancer wards in the whispered words of encouragement from a nurse, the quiet presence of a loved one during chemo therapy. It is there in the angelic comfort and courage from a neighbor who helps out the single mom – the electrical workers and linesmen who traveled far from home working in the aftermath of natural disasters. It is the arms of a mother or a father who wraps their arms around their children in the Syrian refugee camps of Jordan. It is even in the patient response of a parent in the front seat of the car, who calmly responds – for the umpteenth time – “We’ll be there soon.”
We are surrounded by People of trust, who when the whole world around them is weighed down by the burden of the next tribulation – they simply have enough trust to share. People who do not simply ignore them or wish away tribulations. People who do not act as though we live in a godless, unredeemed world. People who do not view our future as an inevitable slide into darkness. People who understand that Christian hope is not about what people are doing apart from God. Rather, it is founded on what God is doing — past, present, and future — in the lives of people.
As people of hope, who acknowledge that the power of Jesus remains. The guidance of the Spirit endures. The intercession of the saints continues. That the love of God is poured into our hearts, in order to be poured in to the world – even as we join the biblical patriarchs, prophets, early Christians, and people of our own time, as we have and will continue to wonder, “How much longer?”
Me, I haven’t a clue. But I know this: God does not respond to us with a timetable. God has already responded with a person – his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, the cornerstone of our trust – the reason for the hope we have within us. The One who trusted that He could give up his life for us, never knowing if we would trust enough to say “Yes” to the Eucharist, “Yes” to the hope of everlasting life, to say “Yes” to Jesus as the answer to our question – “How long?”
Trust enough in the answer already given – even in these times – to shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and … lead the many to justice… [to] be like the stars forever.” Be the angels among us sent to collect the people from the ends of the earth. Join with Jesus and be part of the answer to your own question.