My mind and heart are full today on this latest instance of Adventist disappointment. Most of my friends have enjoyed reasonably good-natured if sometimes hostile humor at the expense of the current iteration of muddled arithmetical exegesis, this time by a Protestant entrepreneur named Harold Camping. I’m sympathetic to their responses–the way Protestant millenarianism often presents itself is both arrogant and xenophobic. But one of my closest friends lost his mother this week, and today we bid her farewell in the LDS chapel that sheltered me for a crucial decade of my life. My heart is not in the Rapture parties staged by my friends and coworkers because my heart is with my friend and his family. As I reflected on the juxtaposition of C*’s funeral and the mostly good-natured mockery of Camping and his followers, I felt to attend more closely to the meanings that lurk behind Rapture rhetoric. In our shared grief, I want to draw out some of the important meanings hiding behind the half-silly, half-spiteful rhetoric that circulates around Rapture predictions.
It was my older brother, I think, who first emphasized to me that the “second coming” comes all the time, at different times for different people. In a very important sense what we call the Second Coming is a sublimation and generalization of the fact of each individual death. When we pass from this scene, our mortal work is done. We rarely know when that exit will occur, but we sense that when it does come we will no longer be able to rectify the injustices of which we are guilty.
While the historian in me is curious about the social and political aspects of millenarianism, the believer in me sees Rapture ideology as intensely personal and practical. Rapture theology is based not just on the anticipated destruction of the present world, it also gives expression to our desire, difficult sometimes for us to say aloud, that we find death a desperately sad way to leave this earth. Rapture ideology also allows us to express our occasional reluctance to continue through the stresses and miseries of mortal life. People who endorse the Rapture are not suicidal. But the Rapture seems to me to provide a way to express misgivings about just how hard life can be. In the promise of a transformation in the twinkling of an eye stands the fervent plea that our mortal probation end easily and quickly.
Saying goodbye to C* was hard. Her son eloquently invoked the testimonies of the Lehite prophet Jacob and the metaphysical poet John Donne to emphasize that death is both monstrous and superable. Crucially, it is both. We cry because death is a painful way to separate and because life is hard enough with those we love still at our side. I suspect that bereavement and the specter of death are good for us somehow, I really do, but they are not pleasant by any stretch of the imagination. I understand why people would hope for the freedom from death that the Rapture promises even as I suspect that it is an ultimately childish hope.
The fears that Rapture sublimates remind me, ultimately, of the fragile majesty of human life. On today’s date of misguided hope and fear, I feel to remember that I will not always be able to touch my hand to my wife’s cheek and watch her smile, will not always have my youngest pulling on my thumbs as she twirls about the living room, will not always be able to share a meal with C* in the home that she and her husband opened to my friends and me for all those years. I, or they, may leave unexpectedly, dashing any procrastinated aspirations for greater kindness or tenderness, for greater commitment to our shared vision. On this day made trivial by our culture wars and the occasional eruptions of demonstrably false millenarian predictions, I feel called to mourn with those who mourn, to hold close against my chest the people whom I love and who have loved me all these years, to grieve and to honor the people who have departed and the way they depart.
And I remember that death is painful. While we mostly heal from bereavement eventually, these are the wounds that are our lot in life, and perhaps that is what makes us most like Christ. It seems to me that in that dark and exhausting garden he felt our grief, experienced a colossal bereavement of which ours are just shadows. There is in our sorrow something both godly and brutal.
As Mr. Camping and his predictions recede from view and soon from collective memory, I remember C* and her bereaved family, and I cry a little here at my desk.