Less than two hundred years ago, groups on or outside the fringes of Christianity began to popularize a tale of how Christ’s eventual Second Coming and the end of the world would happen, and they called this tale the rapture.
The word rapture is a noun from a Latin verb that means seize, grab, or snatch.
The rapture story uses scattered Bible verses out of their contexts, and puts them together to claim the following.
— God will suddenly snatch— rapture— from the earth all of Christ’s true believers and take them body and soul to live in heaven.
— At the same moment, Christ will come to earth and begin to reign as king for a millennium, a thousand earthly years, over those the rapture left behind.
— During his millenarian reign, people on earth will have a chance to become his true believers.
— At the end of those thousand years, Christ will conduct the Last Judgment to seal the everlasting fate of all the living and dead of human history.
Unfortunately, that tale has seeped into other segments within Christianity in recent decades.
Official Catholic teaching rejects the millenarianist rapture narrative. [See paragraph 676 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.]
Instead, the Catholic vision is that the trajectory of Christ’s historical incarnation will repeat itself in the ongoing earthly history of the Church: Life, Work, Failure, Passover, and Glory.
As God the Son came down from heaven, by the Holy Spirit was enfleshed of Mary, and was born human of her to thus live on earth, so the Holy Spirit giving itself to the bodies and souls of earthly men and women brings them to new birth as God’s children, the collective Body of Christ, the Church.
The Church is to continue the mission of Christ, who offered healing mercy to ailing bodies and ailing souls, who proclaimed the gospel, the good news, about God’s Kingdom, and who called all men and women to a new way of thinking aligned with his gospel.
HOLY WEEK: FAILURE
Christ came to the end of his public mission and earthly life, that is, he died, with all twelve of his hand-picked emissaries having betrayed and abandoned him to enemies— the Apostolic Church in ruins— while women from among his followers plus a few men sorrowfully watched him suffer execution and death before they mercifully saw to his burial needs.
But back when Christ was about to begin his public mission of preaching and mercy, the devil tempted him with strategies for spectacular success, but Christ rejected all of them.
Instead, he chose lovingly to live and work in holy communion with the brokenness and failure of the world that all men and women know and suffer.
Standing before the Roman official who was about to authorize his execution, Christ said his kingship would not reach fulfillment and triumph by this world’s measures.
My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over … but my kingship is not from the world. [John 18:36]
He had pointed to that losing strategy when he first began his preaching career with a sermon upholding a path that does not sidestep the brokenness and failure of the world.
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward is great in heaven,
for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. [Matthew 5:3-12]
The sermon is a scandal— from the Greek word for a snare or stumbling block a hunter uses to trip and capture prey.
A scandal, because though Christ turned out to be one of those blessed ones that his first sermon acknowledged, he fulfilled that blessedness by dying as a betrayed, abandoned, cursed man!
And just so, his Church’s path through earthly history will be the image and likeness of Christ’s path on his public mission: life, work, and failure.
Yes, Christ rose from the dead.
But was that a success?
If it was a success, then why did he choose not to show off his victorious resurrected self to Pontius Pilate who authorized his crucifixion?
Why, if it was a success, did he not go and levitate over the Temple to show off his godly glory and triumph to the high priest and the other priests?
If his resurrection was a success, then why did he not stick his mortally-wounded-but-RESURRECTED hands and side into the faces of the scribes, Pharisees, and Herodians, so they would have had to babble stupefied, “My Lord and my God!” like his apostle Thomas did?
Instead, he ascended— he and his success disappearing into the invisible glory of God’s kingdom.
He left his failed but now Spirit-wakened Apostolic Church to do what he did, which was to try to convince Pilate, the priests, the scribes, the Pharisees, the Herodians, and others of the truth of what he said, did, and who he is: telling the truth, but unable to show or prove it.
And the apostles would also fail according to the measure of this world: all but one escaped violent death at the hands of those who refused to believe them.
The Passover of Christ trod from deadly, earthly failure into living, unearthly victory that does not rely on earthly strategies, success, or bullying miracles to convince unbelievers.
Unearthly victory that is at peace with the likelihood of earthly failure!
God incarnate, dead, and risen from the dead, but still embracing deadly wounds in his hands, feet, and side!
Although the Church has gone on to live and die in faithfulness to the strategy Christ chose on earth, members and leaders in the Church have also acted as unbelieving wrongdoers, and— worst of all— they also have betrayed and tortured Christ in the persons of those they have abused physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Will the Church ever pass over into unearthly victory like Christ?
Yes, but not by any earthly accomplishment.
In three consecutive paragraphs (657, 676, and 677), the Catechism of the Catholic Church lays out how the Church near the end of earthly history will relive one last time Christ’s historical Passover from death into Resurrection.
Just as the devil beset Christ with tempting offers of success at his mission, so an eventual “Antichrist” will tempt the Church and the world with a path to apparent success against all problems.
It will be the same temptation man and woman received in the beginning of their history, the same temptation Christ received in the beginning of his historic mission: the temptation of success through abandoning God for the sake of human self-glorification.
Many who are in Christ will fall for this antichrist success strategy.
One form of falling for it will be to think that political victories, military victories, culture war victories, and other sudden or gradual earthly triumphs of the Church will bring the fulfillment of the final coming of God’s kingdom.
But the Catechism flatly denies all of that.
In fact, the Catechism leaves open the question of whether or not the Church will die out on earth:
The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection. [See paragraph 677 in the Catechism.]
If the Church does die out in the end, it will happen because some members will defect to the antichrist path of earthly success while other members will remain faithful to Christ’s path and will suffer death for it as he did.
Even so, the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church [Matthew 16:18], and Resurrection will follow.
The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven. God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world. [Catechism, paragraph 677]
With the Last Judgment, the Beatitudes from Jesus’ first sermon will be fulfilled for those who were or may have been earthly failures, but who extended mercy to those who needed it: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. [Matthew 5:7]
Furthermore, these blessed ones will have given merciful help to others who fell into failures of various kinds: material poverty, bodily sickness, social isolation, and moral wrongdoing.
And those whose failures put them in need of mercy will in the end count (like popes) as VICARS OF CHRIST.
Jesus told his disciples:
“When the Son of man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
then he will sit on his glorious throne.
Before him will be gathered all the nations,
and he will separate them one from another
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,and he will place the sheep at his right hand,
but the goats at the left.
Then the King will say to those at his right hand,
‘Come, O blessed of my Father,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
for I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you clothed me,
I was sick and you visited me,
I was in prison and you came to me.
TRULY, I SAY TO YOU,
AS YOU DID IT TO ONE OF THE LEAST OF THESE MY BRETHREN,
YOU DID IT TO ME.’
Then he will say to those at his left hand,
‘Depart from me, you cursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;
for I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was a stranger and you did not welcome me,
naked and you did not clothe me,
sick and in prison and you did not visit me.
TRULY, I SAY TO YOU,
AS YOU DID IT NOT TO ONE OF THE LEAST OF THESE,
YOU DID IT NOT TO ME.’
And they will go away into eternal punishment,
but the righteous into eternal life.” [See Matthew 25:31-46]
Rather than a final rapture snatching true believers up into heaven, the Word of the Lord tells us there will be a descent, a coming down— success from on high, not according to earthly strategies— and heaven and earth will no longer be two but one.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth;
for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away….
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem,
coming down out of heaven from God;
and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men and women.
He will dwell with them,
and they shall be his people,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe away every tear from their eyes,
and death shall be no more,
neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more,
for the former things have passed away.” [See Revelation 21:1-4]
Glory to God in the highest, and peace to all men and women on earth!