A reflection on the readings for Advent 1C: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 and Luke 21:25-36 by Janine A. Goodwin, M.A., M.S. Ed.
will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth
distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the
world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see
‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when
these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because
your redemption is drawing near.
The readings for this week are apocalyptic. We've made that word
come to mean the end of the world, and often a violent end at that.
Movies and popular culture throw out more apocalypses than cell phone
apps. Just off the top of my head, there's the classic war film
Apocalypse Now and the increasingly popular idea of the zombie
apocalypse. People joke about their post-apocalyptic skill
sets--crocheting, knitting, spinning, cooking from scratch, raising
chickens, woodworking with hand tools.
But that's not what the word "apocalypse" really means. It means
"unveiling." It means finding the hidden meanings and truths that lie
behind current events and everyday existence. Apocalyptic writing, like
the passage from Luke and the books of Daniel and Revelation, use
complex symbolism to try and make sense of the world, and to
prophesy--another loaded word: a prophecy is not a fortuneteller's
prediction, but a projection forward, a warning of what may come if we
don't change direction or a vision of hope and trust in God's ability to
save the world from whatever mess we've made of it. The truth of
prophecy does not lie in whether it came true the way a weather
prediction comes true; it lies in the deeper insight it gives into our
existence and God's way of working in the world.
In popular culture, and in too much of Christian history, both
apocalypse and prophecy have often gotten warped by triumphalism.
Triumphalism is the belief that there is one right interpretation, I've
got it, and the rest of you, up to and including everyone in the past
several thousand years, are all wrong. There are two large problems with
that attitude. The first is that the people with this attitude tend to
make rash predictions, which are proven to be wrong. People who set a
date for the end of the world end up looking bewildered the day after
the world failed to end on schedule. My parents, who seldom bought a
book but never got rid of one, owned a book that was published nearly a
hundred years ago: that book lined up every single event in Revelation
with the early part of the First World War. Its presence in our home and
its manifest failure at predicting the end, which should have come
sometime in the 1920s, helped me get out of an anxiety attack caused by a
similar book that was written in the early 1970s and is similarly
obsolete now. The first problem, then, can be simple.
The second problem is more complex and far more serious:
triumphalism is a failure of humility and charity. It has no place in a
living faith. It does not bring us closer to God.
Thinking that we,
and only we, know what God has said or is saying or is going to do cuts
us off from other people of faith, including people of other faiths,
just when we need to be talking to them. It gives us a sense of safety,
but that safety is spurious. It's not a way of knowing God, but a way of
trying to control God and tell God what to do, which, as the history of
our faith (and just about anyone else's) tells us, never ends
well. Humility before God requires that we do our best to learn and
understand Scripture, but can never fully know the mind of God and must
not presume to do so. Charity requires that we are always open to the
insights of others, past and present. Feminist theology, liberation
theology, and new scholarship do not make old work valueless; they
enhance it. They add new voices and insights to the rich, long
conversation the human race is always having about faith. Even when
older work is demonstrably wrong, our corrections of those wrongs do not
make us superior to those who came before us; in most cases they, like
we, were doing the best they could. If they were dishonest, let us
acknowledge it and then look to make our own work and lives as honest as
we can. Good scholarship honors the truth and seeks the truth, but does
not presume to own it.
The reality of prophecy and apocalyptic is this: the writer had that
time, place, and situation in mind, and the writings also have meaning
for other people at other times. This is partly because human history
does tend to repeat itself. There are always signs in the heavens and
distress among nations, and we are always wondering how the story of
this world will end. It is also because we look for meaning and hope,
turning to ancient writings for insight. It is good to do that as long
as we do not ask for, or fabricate, more certainty than there actually
is, or force our certainties on others.
Prophecy and apocalyptic, when we don't warp them into ways to make
ourselves feel safe or superior, point to trust
in God and openness to one another. The fact is that we don't know the
future; only God knows when and how the end of our individual lives and
the life of the world will end. The good news, which we often forget, is
that our redemption, whatever it is, is always drawing near. The
apocalypse is, indeed, always now, because the truth is always being
unveiled. Thanks be to God.
A footnote: two very good works about the apocalyptic book of Revelation are The Power of the Lamb: Revelation's Theology of Liberation for You, by Ward Ewing, and The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, by Barbara R. Rossing. If you are inclined to choose a book for Advent reading, I'd strongly recommend either of them.