There is no question that we live in troubling times. The 20th century witnessed an unparalleled persecution of Christianity across the entire world – primarily through revolutionary violence in the East, but primarily through worldly seduction in the West (if you doubt that the two are comparable, I will simply point to the witness of Alexander Solzhenitsyn who had ample occasion to experience both for himself). Such persecution was prophesied to us by our Lord: “Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for My name’s sake” (Matthew 24:9). And before this He had warned of the rise of false prophets, of wars and rumors of wars, of plagues and famines and troubles of many kinds – none of which are by any means far from our contemporary experience. And now that the year 2020 – with all its multitude of tragedies and temptations – has drawn to a close, more and more Christians are coming to the conclusion that the times in which we live are not merely troubling, but are apocalyptic.
What are we to make of this as Orthodox Christians? On the one hand we cannot agree with the dispensationalist systems of some Protestants, nor can we encourage a fixation on determining “the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in His own power” and which Christ declared are simply not for us to know (cf. Acts 1:7). Yet at the same time we are certainly commanded to “discern the signs of the times” (Luke 12:56), and above all we are called to a ceaseless vigilance in anticipation of the coming of our Lord: “And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch” (Mark 13:37).
And theologically speaking, there can be no doubt that we are indeed living in the end times – for according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, we have been living in the end times ever since the Day of Pentecost. Even in the first years of Christianity, the Apostle Paul already spoke of himself and his fellow believers as those “upon whom the ends of the world are come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). Indeed, so expectant were the early Christians of the imminent return of Christ that St. Paul at one point even had to assure the church in Thessalonica in the strongest terms that the Day itself had not already arrived (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2). For the early Christians, it was only too clear that “here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come” (Hebrews 13:14). That we Christians today have lost the immediacy of such eschatological vision is, I think, greatly to our hurt.
Because this eschatological awareness was by no means a cause of despair to the Apostles and the early Christians, in keeping with the words of the Lord when He warned us of the trials and tribulations of the last days: “See that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass” (Matthew 24:6). On the contrary, it is clear that the knowledge of the end of this world was, for the first believers, a source of boundless hope and joy. In the earliest Liturgies celebrated by the Apostles, after Holy Communion the celebrant exclaimed: “Let grace come, and let this world pass away” (Didache 10), echoing the prayer uttered with love and longing at the close of the Apocalypse of St. John: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20). But as for us, if the signs of the coming apocalypse fill us primarily with anxiety or with anger, then we must recognize that we have lost something precious of the authentic Christian vision of life.
And this brings us to what in my opinion is the most urgent and troubling of the signs of the times: “Because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold” (Matthew 24:12). If our love for the Lord was pure and fervent, our hearts would be utterly unable to be touched by distress or dismay at the crumbling of that which, after all, has always been earthly and fleeting. But our iniquities have bound us to this world, and have made our hearts cold toward the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. For as our Lord said: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24). And so to whatever extent the signs of the times provoke fear or anger in our hearts, to that same extent we must realize that we have fallen under the sway of our passions and have given our love to this world rather the Kingdom of God.
I think many Christians are aware that the world as a whole has been in the process of falling away from the love of God and giving itself over to various iniquities for some time now. Yet when studying the signs of the times, we must always keep in mind that the primary concern of Christians must not be to sit in judgment over the sins of the world, but rather to deepen our own repentance. As St. Ignatius Brianchaninov wrote:
Apostasy is permitted by God; do not be tempted to stop it with your feeble hand… Distance yourself, and preserve yourself from it; and that will be sufficient for you. Know the spirit of the times; study it, so that you may avoid its influence as much as possible.
We must look for the spirit of the times not simply in world events, but above all in our own hearts. This is our true spiritual battleground, the one on which our eternal fate will ultimately be decided.
And I think if we are honest with ourselves, many (if not most) of us will recognize that our love has indeed grown cold. Not only our love for God and the Kingdom of Heaven, but also our love for our neighbors – and tragically, in some cases even for our brothers and sisters in the Faith. The events of 2020 have catalyzed a level of divisiveness in our nation that has not been seen since the Civil War. The worst of this can most often be found on the internet (and I am beginning to seriously wonder if society can survive the internet). Yet it has spilled over at all too many times into our streets, into our parishes, and into our families.
We are so quick to believe the worst about one another. We are so quick to interpret what we see and hear in the worst possible light, looking upon one another not with maximal charity but with maximal suspicion. More and more we are disposed to see those with whom we disagree not merely as wrong or mistaken, but as wicked and evil. We view them not as souls whom Christ died in order to save, but rather as enemies whom it is our task to destroy. And we regard all of this as the fruit of wisdom and insight.
But the ascetic teaching of the Church repeatedly warns us that such a state is in fact precisely what the demons are trying so hard to produce in us. The very name devil comes from the Greek word for “the slanderer.” The name is well earned. There is no truth they will not twist, nor any lie they will not employ, in their ceaseless attempt to turn us aside from the clear and simple path to salvation laid out by the Lord Himself in Luke 6:35-38:
But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven: Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.
Recently there was a report of a vision a woman in Greece had of her recently departed spiritual father, Elder Ephraim of Arizona. The fathers of St. Anthony’s Monastery testify that this vision is true:
She saw Geronda Ephraim, who was very sad and who was imploring Christ concerning the coming tribulations—things which certainly correspond with the things Geronda spoke about while he was in this life. And he told her:
“Repentance! Repentance! Christ is very angry. We people today should not be in the spiritual state in which we find ourselves. Great evils are coming—you cannot imagine how evil. Alas, what awaits you! Repent as long as there is time. Get on your knees and weep; shed tears of repentance so that perhaps Christ will soften. This also has to do with what is happening in America. Many people will depart through all that is coming, many people will depart [i.e., they will die]. You are not merciful toward one another, you do not have mercy. You are harsh. One person will devour the other. Tell these things to your spiritual father and to others.”
God knows there is no shortage of sins abounding in this world as a whole, and in our nation in particular. Truly we can make our own the words of the Prophet: “For our transgressions are multiplied before thee, and our sins testify against us” (Isaiah 59:12). Yet out of all of them, the Elder sent by God warned solely – and in the strongest possible terms – of only one: our mercilessness and our harshness toward one another. Each of us should take these extremely sobering words to heart.
Yet we should also take courage and be of good hope. The Elder’s warning was dire, but he also pointed us toward the sure and certain path to salvation: humble repentance and fervent prayer to our all-merciful God. The Lord has arranged absolutely everything in the whole world and in all our lives in order to give each one us every possible opportunity “to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).
And the way to be saved is really quite simple. “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.”
After all, the word “apocalypse” does not mean “destruction” or “the end of the world.” It means “revelation” or “unveiling.” It will reveal and unveil that which is within each of our hearts. And so our task in the time that remains is to prepare our hearts for that uncovering, so that on that day “we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, [will be] transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18).
May God grant all of us the grace to become merciful. May He grant us the grace to become like Him. Amen.