Things are not getting worse—just getting uncovered

COVID-19 and apocalyptic imagination

by Ken Sehested

The root meaning of “apocalyptic” is not “catastrophe” but “unveiling.” That which was hidden is now revealed. It is not the brutal, final flourish of history, but the opportunity for renewal, the chance to begin anew.

Simply typing the word—apocalypse—makes my fingers feel awkward, clumsy, hesitant, requiring uncommon coordination. “Apocalypse” is a tricky word. It evokes memory of the surreal 1979 film (“Apocalypse Now”) by Francis Ford Coppola and the mind-bending roles of Brando and Sheen and Duvall. Not to mention the glut of more recent dystopian movies and television shows featuring zombies and the trail of gore they dramatize.

“Apocalypse” is one of those “don’t-go-there” words for me and mine. Its associations are best left to the Left-Behind crowd, quarantined behind their cruel glee at the prospect of getting to cut in line among the lucky few refugees escaping the final sadistic revenge of a ghoulish god.

But we cede too much to that crowd—among other crowds, of various sorts, who plunder our narrative treasures, stealing our vocabulary for mischievous purpose.

In the wake of every new disaster, some within the community of faith—some who speak the name of Jesus with our same accent—describe this present and frightful moment of history in apocalyptic terms. And they are right. It is. But not, I think, in the way they propose.

Apocalyptic moments are often catastrophic ones. As the Levitical author put it, “If you defile the land, it will vomit you out” (18:28). But, for biblical people, the accent is not on catastrophe but on the unveiling and uncovering of truth, the dispelling of delusion, of evaporating fantasy, and forsaking presumed innocence. From Genesis to Revelation, the evil one is often dubbed as the deceiver.

Most importantly, this disclosure, disquieting and upending as may be, opens the portal to repentance and ushers us to the occasion for conversion, the movement from despair to hope. Apocalyptic moments bare the heart to “Godly grief” that “brings no regret” (2 Cor. 7:10), guiding the hands to repair and redeem.

For us, now, is offered the moment to grasp the truth about what the fires have unleashed abroad, what the floods have uncovered at home, what the pandemic has disclosed about what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. named as our “inescapable network of mutuality” and “single garment of destiny.” These realities are intimately connected.

Reality, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Conflicting claims are made. You may remember the character played by that fabulous actor, Maggie Smith, in her role as Countess Violet Crawley, matriarch of the clan featured in the popular TV series, “Downton Abbey.”

The countess displayed the sharpest of tongues and got more than her share of the best lines, including this one: “Hope is a tease designed to keep us from accepting reality.”

Conflict over the direction of the human legacy is most fantastically portrayed (at times frustratingly obscure) in the book of Revelation. Listen to this adaptation of the drama in chapter 12.

“A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs.

“Then another portent appeared: a great dragon, with seven heads and ten horns. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman to devour her child as soon as it was born.

“And she gave birth to a child who is to rule all the nations. But her child was snatched away and taken to God; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God.

“War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels defeated the dragon and his minions. That ancient serpent, who is called the deceiver of the whole world—was thrown down to the earth along with his flock.

“Then the dragon pursued the woman who had given birth. But the woman was given the wings of the great eagle, to fly from the serpent into the wilderness, where she is nourished.

“Then from its mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river.

“Then the dragon went off to make war on the rest of the woman’s children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.”

Brothers and sisters, the self-serving sovereigns who now rule have been issued an eviction notice. The realm of earth is destined to be sheltered under the wings of the Beloved. (cf. Revelation 11:15) “Look,” the Revelator proclaimed, “God’s dwelling place is among the people” (21:3).

“Thy kingdom come,” Jesus implored, “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

Apocalypse is not earth gone to hell in a handbasket by means of a bloody conflagration. It is the confidence in the promise, provision and possibility of a new beginning.

This is indeed a frightening time. But if we persevere in the promise implanted in us by our baptismal vows, we may live to see that the floods, the scorching, and the pandemic do not have the last word.

“Things are not getting worse,” the poet adrienne maree brown wrote. “They are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”

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Postscript: I can think of no better way to observe Lent than to watch this short (3:42) video, “An Imagined Letter from Covid-19 to Humans,” from Films for Action.

©ken sehested @