All Shall Be . . . Hell?

Monday, August 26, 2013 — Week of Proper 16, Year One

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 980)

Psalms 1, 2, 3 (morning) // 4, 7 (evening)

1 Kings 1:5-31

Acts 26:1-23

Mark 13:14-27

While opening my front door at the end of a frustrating and disappointing day last week, I heard a small clunk. My special Julian of Norwich medallion had just broken off my key chain. The back of the medallion has an inscription of Julian’s famous words, “All Shall Be Well.”

I had no idea how to interpret this moment. Was it a bad omen that these reassuring words had suddenly lost their grip on the key chain that holds my life together? Or was that “clunk” a way for the medallion to grab my attention with its encouraging message?

I am similarly perplexed by today’s gospel reading. Is its message about the elect supposed to frighten us or reassure us? The passage describes a terrifying future tribulation: head for the hills, don’t try to save anything, hope that you’re not pregnant or nursing, pray that this doesn’t happen in winter. But this gospel also describes the ingathering of the elect: God will cut short the days of suffering to save some chosen people, and the angels will gather them from all four cardinal directions.

So, how should we feel about the ultimate future? Shall all be well, or shall (almost) all be hell?

I’ve found it helpful to remember the context of Julian of Norwich’s words, “All shall be well.” Julian struggled to reconcile the divine message that all shall be well with her faith’s teaching on condemnation. She had been taught that fallen angels, heathens, and baptized people who live “unchristian” lives would be damned. How could she believe this teaching and also believe that all shall be well?

God responded by revealing to Julian that, on the last day, the Trinity would do a mysterious “great deed.” No one knows what it is or how it will be done, but this deed will somehow make all things well. When Julian tried to see hell and purgatory in her vision, she could not. Some scholars believe that Julian was a “universalist”—someone who believes that all human beings will be saved. It is impossible to know Julian’s mind for certain.

We do know that the belief that “all shall be well” was essential to Julian’s faith, and that she had a vision of God’s love that was much more expansive than the theological and institutional constraints of her time.

Our Scriptures today can help us to internalize an “all shall be well” orientation to the future. The key act of faithlessness seems to be trying to control or predict the future ourselves. In our first reading, Adonijah tries to seize the reigns of the future by making himself king. David is getting old, and the security and stability of the nation is at stake. Adonijah recruits allies, performs a sacrifice, and throws a feast celebrating his control.

The other people in our Scripture readings turn instead to the signs of God’s reign in their midst. The prophet Nathan and Bathsheba ask King David to establish his true successor. Paul tells King Agrippa about his obedience to “the heavenly vision” he received on the road to Damascus. And Jesus asks his disciples to persevere as his followers when other people pop up claiming to be messiahs and prophets themselves. All of these Scriptural examples turn to divine revelations and teachings rather than to their own powers of prediction and control.

The mixed messages we hear about our future can be both terrifying and reassuring. We can respond by trying to control and predict in our own little kingdoms. Or, we can throw in our lot with the reign of God: obedient to a heavenly vision, holding faith that somehow, in some mysterious and unfathomable way, all shall be well.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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