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Friday, December 16, 2016

Advent and the End Time

For over four decades I did my best to rescue Advent from total irrelevance. Squeezed by the pressures of the planet-wide bash called Christmas, the message of Advent has been effectively obliterated, co-opted by the glitz, gluttony, and sentimentality that passes for a celebration of Jesus’ birth. I have no axe to grind about Christmas, which I’ve often pointed out is what it is because it is filling a social and psychological need clearly felt by a huge number of people. The cultural Christmas, replete with concerts, plays, and parties; the commercial Christmas that we’ve made essential to a consumerist economy; the family Christmas with some overlap with both culture and commerce and a good deal of pressures of its own to reaffirm kinship and friendship ties: all of these eclipse the religious celebration, which itself is a paltry and vapid substitution of kitsch in lieu of a profound pondering of the best possible Good News, namely that divinity and humanity are not a pair of polarities but rather an existential marriage that is explosively transforming.
But in all this, Advent itself is far and away the big loser. For few people know and even fewer believe that Advent is essentially not about Christmas the feast but about preparing for the End Time. To be sure, that is not all that Advent is. Nor is that in itself something quite separate from the heart of Christmas. But about the last thing on anyone’s Christmas wish list is a serious desire for any kind of cosmic or historical showdown.
I suggest that one way of understanding Advent is that it has now been going on for years, decades, centuries. And we have finally reached the point where what has been ignored is coming up to be reckoned with.
Let me be clear about “End Time.” Like lots of things in the trunk of Christian imagery and lore, “End Time” or “Last Days” or “Apocalypse” or “End of the World” has itself been thoroughly distorted, used for purposes of scaring the hell out of people, and establishing a false sense of security on the part of a religious elite who imagine themselves to be immune to the suffering implied by if not promised for the last things and last events. I don’t think “End Time” has to do with any of that at all, despite the fact that you can go to the New Testament and quote long passages “proving” me wrong. What I do believe is true is what a great many traditions have long imagined: that there is a future crisis—a Day of Yahweh or a Day of Judgment—in the making for the human species, and possibly for the entire planet. Indeed the imagery often associated with that crisis has involved a cataclysm that is cosmic, in which planets, stars, everything will pass away. All of that really is just imagery, but the imagery points to the gravity of a situation that can only be painted in extreme terms.
“End Time.” Nobody knows very much about what actually is in store for the planet, despite our best predictors. We can say with some assurance that the human species is quite disposable, as much as the dinosaurs were, whereas the earth that supports and suffers us is quite stable and is likely to continue far beyond anything that we can imagine. We now have a growing number of people on the planet (I think the number is growing) who seem intent on bringing on the End Time, many in the belief that such is the divine will. I remember a man whom I had recently met at the time of the buildup to the Iraq invasion. Many, including me, were arguing that rather than go to war we ought to give time for the UN inspectors looking for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction to do their work. His response to me was that he supported war. He was a Bible-believing Christian who thought that war would be the perfect way to usher in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, thus fulfilling the prophecies in the Book of Revelation. That is crazy, but it passes for orthodox Christianity in many circles. It yet might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Any time things get really bad in the external world, stock goes up in Apocalypse. Read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and you’ll see the way his own thinking was colored by a sense of historical showdown, a period when the judgments of the Lord, which are “true and righteous altogether” show up unmistakably in the historical fabric of human affairs. Indeed there are few better examples of social and political anxiety being translated into apocalyptic language than The Battle Hymn of the Republic. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” That is what the cataclysm called the Civil War produced in the mind and words of Julia Ward Howe, and not in hers alone.
The present hour is such a time. I suspect that transcends both the political left and the political right, who simply have different notions of what the present hour portends. But for either camp it is a sea change, because that is exactly what is coming. Indeed it has arrived. Just as surely as the national sense of security was shaken fifteen years ago on September 11, 2001, the national sense of unassailable American democracy is cracking before our eyes. We now have a President-elect who, no matter what you might think of him, brags about his smartness exceeding any need he might have to become better informed than he thinks he already is about national security issues and developments. If that is not a recipe for disaster, even according to his own party who see mounting threats to American security, I don’t know what is. We now have a government not only on the federal level but in many states that is run by people who viscerally hate government, or see it only as a means to advance their own interests, all of which amount to amassing even more wealth and more power for the already wealthy and powerful. If Trump’s cabinet selections are confirmed, most if not every government department will be headed by someone on record as believing in its essential uselessness. You may argue that they are right. I think it is fair to say that no thought whatsoever has been given to what happens when block by major block of the government is dismantled or destroyed and all those who have depended on that for livelihood, not to mention those who have depended on services and support and social organization, suddenly have no place to turn and nothing to do. That might not be Armageddon, but it certainly portends a major crisis for millions.
We can look back at the period from roughly 1800 to 1860 and see that the Civil War was not only inevitable, but was made inevitable by the way the entire national debate was framed. In short, people kept dodging the hard issue through means like “compromise.” Not until some South Carolinians opened fire on a federal fort did war break out. But events had been trending towards war for a long time before that April. Advent had been going on since the first African slave appeared in the New World. The End Time really is the ending of Advent, usually temporary. It is when we get what we have paid for. It is when we reap what we have sewn. It is when what goes around comes around. It is when the false face is pulled off the Joker and the reality of evil is exposed. It is when the Emperor, riding naked through town, is finally called out by the only one in the crowd who will speak the obvious truth.
I can imagine, if you have read this far, that you might be wondering what all this has to do with Advent really and truly. What about all that fruitcake stuff that we thought was the real thing stirred up in the weeks preceding Christmas? Go back and read the scriptural and liturgical texts of Advent. For starters, try the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent:
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
This, of course, can be read as the “end of the world.” But it can also be read as an eternal reality, ever present as a possibility in human events and our response to them. The “life immortal” is not something that one enters the moment one dies, but a whole New Age that has been inaugurated by the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus. We participate in it “now in the time of this mortal life” by living out our baptism, or, if you’re not Christian, by choosing to live according to the Light, which in effect means all those things that make for the Shalom of God, the peace and wholeness of God’s Reign. The “works of darkness” are precisely those things that divide and enslave and demean human beings, that denigrate the weak and vulnerable, that use the structures of the world for greed and personal gain, that generate and spread lies, and that justify injustice. It might be that Jesus will in fact come again with banners flying and trumpets sounding and the whole works, with a divine broom that will sweep the world clean. But it is true that Jesus is already here, in the world, in the community called “Christ’s Body,” and on the altar in the form of Bread and Wine. By all of these means he is already present, really present in “his glorious majesty,” which is ironically the humble garb of a man who steadfastly refuses to arrogate power to himself, no matter how frequently he is despised, rejected, discounted, and insulted.
Be not deceived, however. God is not mocked: not Father, not Son, not Holy Spirit. There will come a day of reckoning, a “doomsday,” people used to call it. Already you can look on the horizon and see the clouds gathering. The harbingers of war, a war no one much wants except of course those who will profit from it, are clearer and clearer with every new tweet. The handwriting is on the wall, and it says what it has said before: “you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” But Advent does not stop with the alarm. “Wakened by the solemn warning,” runs an Advent hymn, “from earth’s bondage, let us rise; Christ our Sun, all sloth dispelling shines upon the morning skies.” The Lamb so long expected has come with pardon. He bids us return to the center. That is what confession is. It is the healing that we and the world deeply need.
Advent, if it happened at any other time of year, would likely not get all mixed up with ornaments and wrappings and pageants and posadas and the like. But I’ll bet it would still be ignored. Who wants judgment, real judgment? I’ll tell you who. Those who pray night and day for some redress of wrongs, some relief from suffering, some hearing of their grievances, some sympathetic intervention on behalf of balancing the scales. Most of the time, the ones in charge of Advent are the very forces that have a vested interest in taking attention away from the issues and substituting trivia and frivolity, or sometimes violence and discord, anything to keep the poor poor and the powerful powerful. But the stinking truth about Truth is that it will always find a way out. It can only be ignored for so long, and then like a little seedling that has lain for many a season under the weight of a log, will eventually find its way to the light.
That is why the last word about Advent is a word of hope. The Omega is who the Alpha is. The end is as promising as the beginning, because it is in the hands of the one who flung the stars into space and called the dry land to appear out of the deep salt sea. Advent may take awhile to run its course, but it always ends not just in a death but in a birth, sometimes the two being indistinguishable. That is worth keeping in mind as not only the days grow shorter and the darkness thickens, but as the world hurtles toward destruction with its drivers laughing all the way.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

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