1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
I suppose we have to begin Advent with a reference to the final arrival of Christ — Certainly nearly the whole of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is about how soon this will happen: with the sound of the trumpet we will be caught up into the air with Jesus. Zechariah describes a time when all the enemies of the people of God will be gathered before Jerusalem for one last battle, and God himself (yes the gender is intended) as a warrior will stand on the Mount of Olives to vindicate God’s people. Then, after these prodigies, there will be peace for ever. Luke uses imagery available in the background culture (even Stoicism describes the kosmos dissolving in fire) to describe the last days. Christians should not be worried, but rather unstoop and life up their heads for their redemption is near (unless, of course, you read the next 3 verses in which we are told to pray always for strength to flee the coming trouble).
What purpose is served by these predictions of times of gloom and doom (for everyone else) followed by times of peace for us? Such visions of the future seem to be a fixture in Judeo-Christian literature. Every age throws up its apocalypse, its gloomy future (followed or not by peace). In the seventies and eighties of the past century, it was mutually assured nuclear destruction. Now, it’s global warming. In every age, people have anticipated the worst.
For people under persecution or oppression, the apocalyptic vision serves to assure them that the oppressive force is not the true reality. Caesar only thinks he’s God. But why does such fascination persist when we are not oppressed? Why is the Left Behind series so popular? Two thoughts: such a vision serves to split the universe into good and evil (with us, of course, we hope, on the side of good, and preachers can use that for motivation to make sure we do what they think we need to do to stay on the side of good); and it absolves us of personal responsibility for changing the way things are. If it’s going to take a grand apocalyptic parousia of God to set things to rights, what can I do?
I find it interesting that we read this kind of literature from our canon at the beginning of Advent. During Advent, we are not really waiting for the final arrival of Jesus, but preparing ourselves to celebrate his first arrival. All language of the son of the human being coming on clouds with great glory notwithstanding, we are preparing to look for God arriving in small and hidden ways. We are subverting our own canon (not that I mind that). We are saying that what’s interesting about human history is already here; the divine is already among us, and is powerless, needs our protection, and won’t be swinging any swords. The grandiose has to accomodate itself to the mundane.
All the handwringing that we do, about war and peace, about global warming, or even about the ‘crisis’ in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion is misdirected if it absolves us from hope. “The world is coming to an end, so what can I do?” is not allowed. The divine is hidden here, not to be revealed out there, and requires something. I may not be able to bring down the global temperature, but I can change my habits. I may not be able to heal the Anglican Communion, but I can be attentive to communion locally. That’s where the divine is to be found. Advent reminds us we have to look for it.