A new wave of books is already cresting. Attack on America: New York, Jerusalem and the Role of Terrorism in the Last Days is just one of the titles riding high. Indeed, Christian bookstores are reporting a big increase in sales of many end-time works. In the eight weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, sales of these titles increased by 71% compared to the eight-week period just before the attacks.

And it's not just publishing. Christian Web sites and chat rooms are full of heated debates over whether the end is near. The televangelists on cable TV can hardly get off the subject.

Since most of this speculation is occurring among our evangelical and Pentecostal brothers and sisters, our tendency as Catholics is to ignore it, make fun of it or quietly thank God that we're Catholic. Because of the numerous “false alarms” and truly irresponsible and unfounded interpretations of both Scripture and current events over the years from this segment of the culture, our responses are understandable.

The danger for us is certainly not irresponsible end-times speculation (although some of that does exists in the murky world of locutions, prophecies and apparitions). Our peril is in our potential, in our easy dismissal of the hysteria, to ignore a very important and very central truth of our faith — namely, the glorious return of Jesus to judge the living and the dead.

The truth of the Lord's return is deeply embedded in our faith and worship. Every Sunday at Mass when we recite the Creed we affirm: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” The Fourth Lateran Council reaffirmed the truth of the Lord's return as an article of faith.

After the consecration, we proclaim: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Scripture tells us that the Mass itself is celebrated in anticipation of the return of Jesus. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that the Our Father is fundamentally an eschatological prayer and that, when we pray for the Father's will to be done and his Kingdom to come, we are praying for the return of Jesus (No. 2771-2772). In the Mass, after we pray this prayer together, the priest offers this concluding doxology: “In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Eager Anticipation

Waiting in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, is an integral part of what it means to live a truly Catholic life, and yet it is an element not often spoken about and consequently, poorly understood and lived.

If eagerly awaiting the Lord's return is important for our salvation, shouldn't we pay more attention to what Scripture and the Church teach about the Second Coming?

The teaching of Jesus and the apostles makes frequent reference to the importance of Jesus' return.

“Just as it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment, so also Christ, offered once to take away the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him” (Hebrews 9:27-28).

If eagerly awaiting the Lord's return is important for our salvation (and this is the point of some of Jesus' best-known parables), then shouldn't we Catholics pay more attention to what Scripture and the Church teach about it?

Consider:

The Second Coming will happen. The redemptive plan of God won't be complete until Jesus returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. The first time, Jesus came as a lamb, a sacrifice for our sins; the second time, Jesus will come as king and judge, to reward those who have responded to his sacrifice and punish those who have rejected his sacrifice.

It will follow an order ordained by God. When Jesus returns, those who have died in the Lord will rise first, and then those who are alive and living in his grace will rise to join them. This will be the resurrection of the just to glory.

“The Lord himself will come down from heaven at the word of command, at the sound of the archangel's voice and God's trumpet. And the dead in Christ will rise first, then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).

The Scriptures seem to indicate that these events will all happen in close proximity to one another; the return of the Lord and the resurrection of the dead. Some evangelical Protestants posit a time delay between this meeting with the Lord in the air, which they term the “rapture,” and the Second Coming. The apparent sense of Scripture and the prevailing Catholic theological interpretation connect these events together.

Then will come the resurrection of the damned (John 5:27-29).

Business Not-As-Usual

The Second Coming will be preceded by certain signs. Even though we can't know the “exact day or hour” (Mark 13:32), there are nevertheless some indicators that Jesus and the Apostles give that will alert us to the true proximity of his coming. These include some type of corporate conversion of the Jews (Romans 11:25-26, Luke 21:24); the universal proclamation of the Gospel until the “time of the Gentiles is fulfilled (Luke 21:24, Matthew 24:14); a massive apostasy (2 Thessalonians 2:1-3, Luke 18:8); and the rise of the anti-Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:3-10.

Many will be taken completely by surprise. The world apart from Christ will be surprised, frightened and in confusion as the events preceding and surrounding his coming unfold — but Christians, grounded as they are in the truths of his coming, will rather be expectant and joyful (Luke 21:27). The world as a whole will be going on with “business as usual” (Matthew 24:37-39) while Christians live lives of fervent prayer, community and service, eagerly awaiting and even “hastening” his coming by living lives of holiness and evangelization (1 Thessalonians 5:4-22; 2 Peter 3:3-13).

We are exhorted to encourage each other with the truth of the Lord's return. Remembering that the Lord is returning is supposed to function as a source of strength and perseverance, a state of mind that will enable us to better love God and our neighbor right now, in the current circumstances of our lives (James 5:7-9, 1 Thessalonians 4:17, 1 Peter 1:13).

As we begin the New Year with our nation at war, we should not fail to examine our lives. The present conflict may not be a sign that the Second Coming of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is at hand. But, then again, as Jesus said: “Be ready!”

Ralph Martin, president of Renewal Ministries (http://www.renewalministries.net ), wrote

Is Jesus Coming Soon? A Catholic Perspective on the Second Coming (Ignatius).