14th November 2021

Back in 1978, the Daily Telegraph had a piece around this time of the year headed, ‘Wartime battles “still echo deep in the Atlantic”’.

It opened by saying this: A theory that echoes of battles fought in the North Atlantic in the 1939-45 war are still reverberating in natural ‘sound channels’ deep in the ocean is intriguing United States Navy personnel who operate the super-sensitive, super-secret listening posts tracking Soviet submarine movements.

The article went on to describe the US navy using hydrophones and cables – probably very old tech. by today’s standards. Correspondence with The US Department of the Navy in Washington, which I still have, revealed that the article was somewhat exaggerated – you know journalists!

But I still found this fascinating as a metaphor for the long-lasting after-effects of war.

In a general sense, reverberations from war certainly do endure, almost for ever. It’s rumoured that some families in the Midlands are still divided by the 17th century English Civil War – though that may be an urban myth. More certainly, the destructive effects of centuries of division and fighting in Ireland are clear to see. And of course, from more recent wars, there are the terrible lingering human costs of deaths and bereavements, disabilities and PTSD from which our service personnel and those of other countries still suffer. And there is too the dreadful fallout in the disruption to national civilisations, with all the forms of human suffering that inevitably follow.

But how about war with an end of the world as the aftermath? Asked last week what would be the most likely cause of the world ending as we know it, the physicist Brian Cox was stark in his answer: ‘Human stupidity’, he said. A nuclear holocaust is a constant possibility, and potential triggers are obvious – Taiwan, or instance, or competition for resources as a result of climate change. Is that what Jesus envisaged when he said this, as in today’s Gospel?

When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Wars, famines and, in the other gospel accounts of what Jesus said, pestilences too – how very topical just now! But, Jesus then explained, the aftermath, not immediately but soon, would be a dramatic coming of the Son of Man ‘with great power and glory’. Who is the Son of Man? The title is ambiguous, with roots in the Old Testament, but when Jesus used the term he was probably referring to himself.

So on that basis, he would be returning to judge the world, and even though no-one could know when it would happen, it would be during lifetime of those around him. This didn’t of course occur. But he warned his hearers to be on the alert for it to happen: ‘Keep awake’, he said, ready and watchful. This is really a theme for Advent which isn’t for another fortnight. Soon there will be urgency, urgency in preparing for Christmas. But the theme of Advent is partly what Jesus’s teaching is about – the importance of urgency and readiness for his return, the Second Coming.

Will this be an after-effect of war, or plague or famine – the sort of risks we are running just now? Will it be in our life-times? Maybe, perhaps unlikely, but we can’t be sure. But here’s another cheerful thought. For each of us as individuals, would a dramatic end of the whole world be so very different for us from our own individual dying and deaths? It’s not a popular theme, but, whatever the delusions of our youth, we shall all die. We may have confidence in God’s love to surround and keep us, but we don’t know what mental or spiritual life or experience lies beyond. The basic concept of eternity is unfathomable for us, beyond our ken. Unless, that is, your name is Lord Mancroft: he wrote that cricket is ‘a game which the English, not being a spiritual people, invented to give themselves some concept of eternity’. Clearly not a cricket devotee!

Meanwhile, let’s be ready for the potential surprise aftermath from war and tribulation. ‘Be alert’, says Jesus repeatedly, ‘Keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come’. In the best, unselfish sense, let’s make the most of life. In the hymn by Thomas Ken, a canon here in the 17th century: ‘Live this day as if thy last . . . For the great day thyself prepare’. From a recent poster in a shop window: ‘Eat glitter for breakfast, and shine all day’. And from a recent television programme: ‘Every new day is a gift. That’s why they call it “the present.”’