The day of the Lord

Advent 1C

Zechariah 14:4-9

Psalm 50:1-6

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-31

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.

Trouble ahead?

Proper 28B

Daniel 12:1-13

Psalm 16

Hebrews 10:31-39

Mark 13:14-23

Ah, you can tell we are coming to the end of the liturgical year! Tis the season for apocalypsis. Daniel 12 (all of Daniel, in fact) and Mark 13 are examples of apocalyptic literature. Both of them purport to show trouble ahead, and then beyond that, better times. The trick of apocalyptic literature, what makes it so appealing to its intended readers, is the accuracy with which it seems to predict the troubles we are now living through. Apocalyptic literature is always put on the pen of someone who lived a long time ago, and predicted these troubles. That way, we can trust also his prediction of the resolution of these troubles. Jesus seems to predict the destruction of Jerusalem. Daniel, in the Babylonian court seems to predict the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

What make apocalyptic appealing to us (living well past its intended audience) is the cosmic view taken. Events of this world are directly connected to events in the divine throne room. What is happening to us is not random, but part of God’s plan.  God has not forgotten us and left us to suffer, but all these things must take place in order that God’s appointed purpose can be worked out, and we will be part of that plan, just a few minutes from now.

The danger, of course, is to begin to think God intends this present trouble as a test for us. I suppose it is alright to think so when the trouble isn’t too bad, but when it makes no sense, we run the risk of turning God into a monster. Or perhaps, if we keep God out there on the grand political stage (our persecution will soon come to an end) things are o.k., but when it gets personal we run into problems.

R’s death and funeral this week is a good example. If that was part of God’s plan, God is a monster. The hope given in these passages is that God “has cut short those days” and the “shattering of the power of your people” has come to an end. These things are just facts (but not unnoticed in the heavenly court), and God will bring them to an end. For R’s widow, the future will be bright again. We will not always be powerless to comfort her.

All apocalyptic literature takes the perspective of a life beyond (and sometimes after) this one. These things are not the final reality. Whether in some future resurrection, or in some restoration of God’s divine plan, things will be set right. From the divine perspective, this is not the way things are supposed to be. The seers get into trouble when they try with too much detail to imagine how things are supposed to be. That often involves retribution of a particularly sordid sort against God’s enemies (the oppressed can easily become oppressors when the tables turn). The hope we have is that this wasn’t supposed to happen, and God will make it right.

Apocalypses also often include visions of worship (sometimes as if on hallucinogens). It is at worship where the divine order is restored, particularly worship in the divine realm. Our worship here is a reflection (sometimes feeble) of that divine worship, but provides a foretaste of things set right. The service for R on Monday gave us a foretaste of that divine restoration and resurrection. In it, all of us, R included, were raised to new life. Our grief was carried into the divine throne room and given comfort. Our lives were restored and a better future promised. Worship helps us to see things from the apocalyptic perspective, the way things should be even when they are not. It trains our imagination for that visionary work.

How noble the poor

All Saints’ Day Observed

Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14

Psalm 149

Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17

Matthew 5:1-12

I’m afraid this won’t be much of an entry this week. The events of the week (R’s hospitaliization, among other things) haven’t left me much time for working on a blog.

What I want to observe, however, is that both Ecclesiasticus and Matthew engage in the same kind of literature, the praise of the noble. It’s a standard literary form, and serves to identify the community being addressed, and its ethic. Ecclesiasticus goes on to praise famous men (sorry, it’s men only) by name — all the great names of the Jewish epic, and give reasons why they are worthy of praise. The intended audience of the sons of the nobility would carry away from this hymn a clear idea of what they should aspire to.

The beatitudes are exactly the same form of literature. Each could be translated “How noble the poor in spirit, or those who mourn, etc.” Reasons are then given why they are worthy of emulation. They point at exactly the opposite sorts of folks Ecclesiasticus is pointing at.

The events of the week lead me to reflect that we are noble precisely when we need the support of the community, not the other way around. It is the web of relationships that surrounds us that makes us saints, not our personal virtue (virtue only makes sense as a social category anyway). We are to make sure that that web of relationships is not so tissue-thin for anyone that it tears under stress. We do this by ennobling those who rely on the community (all of us). It is only through the help of that great cloud of witnesses that we can run the race. And those witnesses are those named in the beatitudes rather than in Ecclesiasticus’ hymn to famous men. These are they who have come through the great distress.