In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Friday, November 30, 2012

Advent 1

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.

There 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.

1 comment:

kellbell said...

I really appreciate you addressing this, because the imagery used in the Bible still terrifies people in a way that is so unhealthy.But just when I think it's impossible to understand,I'm reminded that Paul encouraged us that we have "the mind of Christ", and we are given "the Spirit" in order to be able to discern spiritual things. Unfortunately,I don't think many Christians trust this,and think truth can only come to them through preachers.(and some of them are really bad, as we all know)Thank you for a new perspective.