Today’s post is from guest contributor William di Canzio, a playwright who lives in Philadelphia. His debut novel, Alec, inspired by EM Forster’s Maurice, was published last July by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and named Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Book Review. He previously wrote for Bondings 2.0 in 2016, describing his dismissal from liturgical ministry because of his marriage.
Today’s liturgical readings can be found by clicking here.
When I was a child, the apocalyptic readings of today’s liturgy (along with those for next Sunday, the Solemnity of Christ the King) terrified me, because they were about The End of the World. I grew up during the Cold War and so lived my young life under the threat of a mushroom cloud. We practiced for air raids in grade school, sheltering under the tops of our little desks. But kids are smart. I knew my desk would be useless when an atomic bomb was dropped on nearby Philadelphia (as it surely would be, because everybody said they would target big cities). We’d all die a horrible death of radiation poisoning; our skin would fall off, our eyes melt, the earth would burn. Children know about terror.
Today we first hear from the prophet Daniel, who identifies himself in the first person and goes on to transcribe the words God spoke to him, foretelling a time, heralded by the princely angel Michael, “unsurpassed in distress since the nations began…”
In the gospel passage from Mark, Jesus presents his own version of the final days: “the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky,” thus involving the entire cosmos in the final reckoning for the human race.
In both biblical predictions, certain people survive the catastrophe. In Daniel, they are “the wise…those who lead the many to justice.” In Mark, they are the “elect,” gathered by angels “from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.”
Who are they, these wise ones, the elect?
More recently than Mark or Daniel, another messenger speaks these words to a most unlikely prophet:
What will the grim Unfolding of these Latter Days bring?
Death more plenteous than all Heaven has tears to mourn it,
The slow dissolving of the Great Design,
The spiraling apart of the Work of Eternity…
All collapsed. All dead, forever,
In starless, moonlorn, onyx night…
It is Not-to-Be Time…
Let any Being on whom Fortune smiles
Creep away to death
Before that last dreadful daybreak
When all your ravaging returns to you
With the rising, scorching, unrelenting Sun…
A tidal wave of Protean Fire
That curls around the planet
And bares the Earth clean as bone.
The passage is from Angels in America: Perestroika. In Tony Kushner’s play, it’s 1985, and the Angel is growing Shakespearean in her efforts to persuade her chosen prophet, Prior Walker, a gay man afflicted with AIDS, to remain in heaven rather than return to a life of suffering on earth, where his body lies in a hospital bed. Her oracular vision of a dying planet resounds achingly with us, these days when our ravaging of the earth is being returned to us in fire and flood. It’s also a scare tactic: she is intimating how his disease might devastate Prior’s body. But it doesn’t work. Prior choses to return to his life, whatever pain it may hold, rather than remain in celestial numbness.
Prior’s frightening illness is mysterious and uncurable in 1985; moreover, he’s been abandoned by the man once shared his life. Alone, sick, scared. Yet the angels have chosen him. The play shows him to be wise, and to be leading others to wisdom. Does that place him among the elect? I heartily believe so.
Kushner, like Daniel and Mark, chooses to leave us with hope after the doom of the Last Days. There is a second prophetic character in Angels in America. Her name is Harper. Like Prior, she is sick (in her case, with addiction); like Prior, she has been abandoned in her illness by the man who loved her and once shared her life. In her clairvoyance, she fears for the fate of the planet: human behavior is shredding the ozone layer—earth’s immune system. Like Prior, she eventually escapes to the heavens, not in a fantastic way, but on a transcontinental flight. In her last scene, she sees this vision:
Night flight to San Francisco. Chase the moon across America…
When we hit thirty-five thousand feet, we’ll have reached the tropopause. The great belt of calm air. As close as I’ll ever get to the ozone.
I dreamed we were there. The plane leapt the tropopause, the safe air, and attained the outer rim, the ozone, which was ragged and torn, patches of it threadbare as old cheesecloth, and that was frightening…
But I saw something only I could see, because of my astonishing ability to see such things:
Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired.
In this world, there is a kind of painful progress…
The vision is mystical, radical. Harper (raised a Mormon) sees that the Saints of these Latter Days, the chosen ones who save the planet from human folly and offer us a second chance, are the poor, the exploited, the despised; those who have been made to suffer unjust and untimely death by famine, or war, or plague. (For Harper, in 1985, that would be AIDS). She sees that their holy souls, freed by death, are the acceptable sacrifice by which the wounded world can be healed.
That takes us back to Daniel, whose name famously means God is my judge. No civil authority, no religious authority, but God.
—William di Canzio, November 14, 2021