1 December 2013
First Sunday of Advent
Advent 1A (RCL)
The First Sunday of Advent always brings readings about the “second advent” of Christ, the putative return of Christ. Even in the earliest years of Christianity, the expectation of Christ’s return proved to be an embarrassment. Paul, in his earliest letters, certainly expected Christ’s return any day, and by the time he wrote the letter to the Romans, he has had to modify that expectation somewhat. “Salvation is nearer to us now than we we first became believers,” but no longer tomorrow. Matthew, writing even later than Paul to the Romans, tells us that about that day and hour, no one knows, not even the Son, but only the Father.
And here we are two millennia later, and it hasn’t happened yet. So, why do we contemplate the end as the return of Christ? In our context, wouldn’t it make more sense to contemplate the end of the world (as we know it) as our sun going nova, or even the heat death of our atmosphere? The purpose of the apocalyptic imagination is to allow us to conceive of the way it should be. The return of Christ, for the the early Christians, allowed them to imagine a world in which the teachings of the lord would be the rule of the day, rather than the empire of Caesar.
In the Old Testament period, the idea of the restoration of the kingdom allowed the conceptualization of world in which God’s justice prevailed. Unfortunately, this often involved imagining other peoples subjugated by violence to the rule of God. Even in this passage from Isaiah, Mount Zion will be the highest of the mountains, implying that the worship of YHWH will supplant all other worship. But the outcome will be that instruction (torah) will go out from Jerusalem, and all the world will live in peace, signaled by the beating of swords into plowshares: the implements of war become the implements of agriculture.
Matthew seems to suggest that the end will not involve violent retribution against the enemies of Christ, but rather the reward of the faithful. When Christ returns, one will be taken (with Christ?) and one left behind. And this will affect those who work in the fields and those who grind grain, not those in the halls of power. This implies that, among these classes, there is a way of living that involves a wakefulness or awareness of the presence of Christ. It will happen in the midst of everyday life, and not with some apocalyptic war.
This wakefulness is something we need to practice in the midst of working in the field or grinding grain. If we are not ready at all times, we might miss the arrival (the advent) of the Christ. Does this mean working in the field as if the Lord had already returned, grinding grain as if the justice of God were already established? If so, then it means not waiting for God to come and set things to rights, but living as if it were already so. Rather than the apocalyptic imagination as a way of conceptualizing the world the way it should be, and then waiting for God to make it so, it means living that conceptualization now, establishing relationships of justice even now.