The Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent is certainly NOT very comforting. It’s far removed from our notions of who our God is and who God is calling us to become. Perhaps there should be a warning label attached to this reading, “…may be hazardous to your mental health and your ability to sleep through the night.”
I remember one night when I was about fourteen years old. I was already in bed, so I picked up the Bible to read a few lines before dropping off to sleep. What better way to sleep in comfort than in closing my eyes after being comforted by a passage of Scripture? My Bible fell open to the book of The Apocalypse, and for the next hour I read in horror, wide-eyed–like I was gazing into a crystal ball. Beasts, deep pits, and creatures with ten heads and horns kept popping out of the book, along with diseases, antichrists, blood and violence. I was terrified and sleepless thinking of the wrath and vengeance to come.
Woody Allen, in a commencement speech once said, “We stand at a crossroads-one path leads to destruction, the other path to annihilation-let us pray to God that we make the right choice.” This is the reality we seem to be offered in Mark chapter 13: the doomsday clock is ticking away the hours until the End. In the past few decades other voices have echoed this doomsday mentality. Jonathan Schell, in Fate of the Earth , describes in vivid language what’s going to happen to us if we don’t stop nuclear proliferation. He goes back to survivors of the initial bomb on that August morning in 1945, and then informs us that that detonation was less than one millionth of what we would experience if today’s stockpiles were detonated. It would be, literally, the end of everything.
Is this where our path is leading? Is this all we have to look forward to? As followers of Jesus, we cannot accept that fatalistic approach to life, which is why we need to know and understand about eschatological hope. When we know why these words were written, these very threatening words can give us hope, even in a world that seems sometimes bleak. When we fall into the trap of taking these stories and warnings literally that we begin to wonder who the Antichrist might be. No, it’s not Bishop D’Arcy. No, it’s not your 7th grade math teacher. When we begin to understand eschatological vocabulary, we realize that numbers have symbolic value and that vivid imagery is used to cloak the truth that the author is attempting to communicate. Apocalyptic literature is always written about present realities and that’s why there are magic numbers and symbolic representations—so the ruling powers won’t figure out that the authors are talking about them! Regardless of how we look at the idea of a battle between Order and Chaos, we need to remember that Order and Goodness always triumph. Always.
No matter how violent or stressful the situation in Iraq or the Middle East, no matter how dark our own personal lives become, God has already acted decisively. God has, through the coming of God’s Christ, entered human history and nothing is the same anymore. The Reign of God dwells not only within us, but it exists in seed form in the world around us. Our lives, as living Christs, will have an impact on this great recycling project of God—which only proves once and for all that God is Green.
We know something that Jonathan Schell and the other pessimists don’t know, namely, that in Jesus Christ the world isn’t headed for the landfill, rather, it is already being transformed into the Reign of God. It is God’s own Extreme Makeover World Edition, guaranteed to become exactly what a loving God has designed it to become. It requires only our active participation to make it come into full reality.
Everything we thought had enduring value, everything that we have so desperately clung to: our 401K’s, our independence, our comfortable North American life—all of that will be exposed for the illusion that it truly is, the mask removed by the coming of the One who arrives unexpectedly in our consciousness and in our hearts. G.K. Chesterton says, “We now have a strong desire for living combined with a strange carelessness about dying. We desire life like water and yet are ready to drink death like wine.” When we gain the wisdom to see the world and ourselves as God sees things, we realize that our value has nothing to do with our achievements or the tenacity by which we grasp at transient things. God alone fills us with God’s light and goodness and vision. How then can we be frightened or troubled or feel like we lack anything?? We are already full of the abundance of God’s life; we have only to realize it, and tap into the tremendous power that lies within each of us. In this holy season of Advent, we wait not for the coming of Christ in a literal sense, rather, we wait in the silence for the fullness of God’s coming within our own hearts. This is something the saints knew well, which is why they were able to give themselves wholly to the service of their sisters and brothers. The day will come when each of us will die and then experience the full effects of the coming of our God. But we don’t need to wait until that moment to have that insight. We can share the vision and passion of the saints like Dorothy Day or Mother Theresa and experience the vision of God in the here and now. We don’t need to wait until death to “get the whole picture”. When we release our fears and our attachments to things that cannot satisfy, we unclutter our hearts. We find that we suddenly have all that space available to be filled by the God who is relying on us—our hands, our feet, our eyes, our hearts and arms—to BE Christ all over again, in the present tense, in this time and place.