First Sunday in Advent: Guess Who’s Coming Again?
Isaiah 2:1-5: Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
The First Sunday in Advent begins the Christian Liturgical Year, and the Revised Common Lectionary starts over again with Year A. All the readings are heavy with portent and hope. But these especially hint at the second coming of the Christ, and apocalypse. For literalists, the portion read from Matthew foretells the Rapture at the end of time. For Bible historians, the portion lifted out of Matthew’s gospel for reading on the First Sunday in Advent really belongs toward the end of the story of Jesus’s life. For scholars, Apocalypticism was not part of Jesus’s world view. He rejected the apocalyptic ministry of John the Baptist early on, and never said or thought anything like Matthew (or Luke – both based on Mark) suggests.
If the purpose of liturgy is to celebrate the foundation myths of a people, it makes sense for the Christian liturgical year to begin with Advent – the Coming of the Messiah. We may well look into our Jewish heritage and reconnect with powerful metaphors that call for a return to a true homeland and to the restoration of God’s distributive justice-compassion. Instead, Christianity got trapped into a kind of permanent state of alienation when the original community that knew Jesus died, and the major interpreter of the meaning of Jesus’s life and teachings – Paul – and his followers and the members of the early Christian communities he founded also died, without seeing that restoration. The idea of a second coming and a final judgment at the end of time took hold, especially when the writer of Mark’s Gospel saw the sacking of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the disintegration of Jewish national identity. Clearly, God had no intention of acting to restore anything. But that kind of despair is not conducive to sustainable human life, and so Matthew borrowed from Mark 13:33-36: “Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming . . . Blessed is the slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.” Spiritual leaders, searching for some hope to cling to, moved Matthew’s words from the time leading up to Jesus’s betrayal and death to the time leading up to Jesus’s birth, and the prophesied intervention of God into human affairs.
After a couple of thousand years, Matthew’s admonition became a pious maxim supporting a puritanical emphasis on morality, and the promise of reward for the chosen believers after the personal Armageddon of individual death, or the final Armageddon at the end of time.
The Psalm and Isaiah are all about foretelling, foreshadowing, getting ready for God to act, for the Savior of the world to be born. Despite all our 21st Century sophistication, post-modern humanity still projects salvation onto an interventionist, judgmental, parent-god. The bad news is, Jesus is dead – seriously dead. Perhaps that is the reason for revisiting Mark’s Little Apocalypse in Matthew’s retelling. The good news is, as Paul reminds us, restoring God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion – the balance of the known Universe – is up to us.
The portion of Paul’s Letter to the Romans that is selected for this first Advent Sunday should be backed up to include verses 8-10: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another . . . love is the fulfilling of the law.” What better time for post-modern Christians to recommit to partnership in the great work of restoring distributive justice-compassion. “. . . [N]ow is the moment for you to wake from sleep,” Paul writes. Now is indeed the time for changing consciousness, for transforming human society. Beat swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks, as Isaiah says: “[N]ation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
In what may be a last-ditch effort to salvage the planet-wide abysmal approval rating for the Bush administration, a one-day peace conference was organized to take place in Annapolis, Maryland. Not surprisingly, the current prime ministers of Israel and Palestine agreed to further serious talks, with the intention that a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli problem will be implemented by the end of 2008. The truly radical surprise would have been if the leadership of Hammas, the democratically-elected militant Islamist organization controlling the Gaza Strip (half the Palestinian territories) and Iran had been invited to join the process. Instead, predictably, the Palestinian Prime Minister was greeted with outraged protests organized by Hammas, and as soon as his feet touched the Holy Land once more, the Israeli Prime Minister backed away from the whole idea, accusing the Palestinian Prime Minister of “weakness.”
Unfortunately, loving our enemies means acting with justice-compassion in a radical abandonment of self-interest. We can “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” along with the Psalmist, but leaving half the players out of the game while declaring victory assures the continuation of Empire, not the restoration of Covenant.
Suppose that instead of terrorizing ourselves with the Advent of violent judgment, this time leading up to the celebration of Jesus’s birth is a celebration of the Advent of the Christ consciousness; instead of a Eucharist mourning the personal holocaust of Jesus’s death, a Eucharist of Ordination, in which to recommit ourselves to the great work of distributive justice-compassion? Jesus is not coming again. We are.