By Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service
The Bible is not without its share of wrathful moments. Like a stern parent, God challenges his people to do better, and warns them of the tragedy that will result if they do not change their ways. What could be more tragic than the end of the world? And so, when the prophets warn Israel, they use the loss of the sun, moon and stars as a symbol of the worst that could happen:
Is 13:9-11 See, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light. I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the insolence of tyrants.
Ez 32:7-11 When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens, and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the shining lights of the heavens I will darken above you, and put darkness on your land, says the Lord GOD. I will trouble the hearts of many peoples, as I carry you captive among the nations, into countries you have not known. I will make many peoples appalled at you; their kings shall shudder because of you. When I brandish my sword before them, they shall tremble every moment for their lives, each one of them, on the day of your downfall. For thus says the Lord GOD: The sword of the king of Babylon shall come against you.
Jl 2:10-11 The earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The LORD utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command. Truly the day of the LORD is great; terrible indeed – who can endure it?
Jl 3:14-16 Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The LORD roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth shake. But the LORD is a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel.
There is an interesting if unspoken assumption in these descriptions. The sky and the things in that sky are a part of “us” — when our world ends, they end with it.
This image continues into the end-of-the-world scenarios found in the Gospels: in every case, the true end-times are not merely the end of planet Earth, but the end of the universe itself. In each case, the passage quotes Jesus:
Mt 24:29 “Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.”
Mk 13:24-26 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”
Lk 21:25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”
But stars symbolize more than the end of the world, because the end of the world is most assuredly not the end of everything. We have immortal souls. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we see stars as an example of the range of possibilities of what God can create, especially what he does with us after death:
1 Cor 15:38-42 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.
We are creatures — things created — made of matter, and in that sense the same as every other material being. But even among the created bodies, not all are the same. And we are also more than that because we humans have within us the spark of intellect and free will, the soul, which makes us the image and likeness of God. In that, we are more glorious than even the stars themselves.
(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, ©1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U. S. A. All rights reserved. Used by permission.)