Yesterday was my 35th birthday and on Thursday I had lunch with a friend who is close to me in age and at a similar stage of life. Part of our conversation included talking about where we see our lives going, and hopes for the longer term future. This is a conversation I’ve been having with numerous people for the last two decades, and will no doubt keep having for the decades to come. It’s kind of fun, and it’s always interesting to hear how others approach this. But one of the things I’ve noticed is that there was a significant shift for me a few years back. I think it had something to do with the new decade of turning 30, or having our first child, but sometime around all that was the first time I was able to have the whole picture in view of where all this might be headed. This doesn’t mean I completely know what I want to be when I grow up, but it is a different way to see things. Rather than focusing on just a few years at a time, the full arc of a life is much more visible than it was even just five years ago.
Then your kids get old enough that you have memories of yourself when you were that age, many of those memories being with your parents, and then all of a sudden you realize that you are now in your parent’s place in this new memory being created, and the world shifts, and the end is near!
This isn’t news to many of you, so thanks for bearing with those of us for whom this is a relatively new experience. I bring it up because it’s now Advent, and it feels like it relates.
While the birth of Jesus on Christmas morning is certainly part of what this is all about, a particular event at a particular time and place, the season of Advent itself is about something much larger. In many ways, from where we stand now, it’s about humanity come of age to the point that we’re able to look, however partially, toward the full sweep of history, and the far horizon, the end point toward which we might be moving. It is a season when we gain a deeper awareness of the Coming of the Christ, the Human One, in the saga of this planet. It is a Coming that presses in on this present moment, not only from the past, but also from the future. And so this first Sunday of Advent, through these apocalyptic type statements of Jesus, is something of an orientation to that long arc of the human story.
This is not a gentle story that is being told. It is tumultuous. It is strange. It is real. And some of it feels a little too close to home to be comfortable.
Jesus says to anyone who will listen: “There will be distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”
You know things are starting to get strange when the day’s gospel reading sounds like a headline from last month’s New York Times.
He continues: “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”
Last month, the hurricane, the superstorm, next month, the cliff, fiscally speaking.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars…Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”
Happy Advent, Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year to you. It looks like we’re in for quite a ride.
Luke, the gospel writer, of course does not have 21st century Americans in mind when he is doing his writing. When Jesus uses this language, he is using a type of speech and imagery common to his day: the language of apocalypse. This form of speech was a way of talking about how the world, steady and solid as it may seem, would not be this way forever. Apocalyptic resonated especially with those for whom the evils of the world seemed so overwhelming, that their defeat called for a divine intervention that would turn the order of the world upside down, shake the powerful down from their thrones, and restore order and justice for the faithful. Apocalyptic is the language of exiles, the language of dispossessed peasants, the language of African slaves in the Americas.
We begin to see signs of apocalyptic language in the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, Joel, and parts of Isaiah. Apocalyptic often used cosmic symbols to speak of earthly realities. One example is from the prophet Joel: “I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth…the sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord.”
By Jesus’ time this was a full blown genre of literature. So Jesus is drawing from the language of the day when he says all these things. There does seem to be a pretty clear historical context for these words in Luke. In verses 20-24, Jesus talks about Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, and the city being trampled by Gentiles. In the previous verses Jesus had noted that the temple would also be destroyed: “not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” The Romans had done all this around the year 70. Luke is writing in the decades following these events, and for his readers, this was the apocalypse of their time, when their world came crashing down around them, and everything they previously held as solid and sure lied in ruins. Jesus notes: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”
The human race doesn’t come off looking too good in this whole scenario. Jesus speaks of “wars and insurrections” as if they are a painfully predictable part of the human story. “Do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately. He goes on, “Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” Typically, people cite these kinds of “signs” as a way of noting that the end of the world is right around the corner, but Jesus’ point is just the opposite: “the end will not follow immediately,” he says. He neither condones these things nor hypes them, nor assigns them to the will of God. He’s familiar enough with the human condition that he can say with a good degree of confidence, and lament, that they’re going to happen. He can also say, “do not be terrified.”
Those things did take place during that generation, and the end did not come, and then that generation passed away. And since that generation, all these things seem to keep taking place. One apocalypse after another, some of them caused by humans, some of them caused by the natural world, some of them a combination of the two.
And now, we are the new “this generation.”
There are so many unknowns in where all of this is headed. We can’t see, nor are we meant to see, the destination.
This much we do know: Everything is shifting. The ground beneath our feet is not so constant and steady as it first appears. We’re floating on a burning sea of liquid rock, and this raft of a continent we’re on is slowly sailing away from its previous union with all the other continents 200-some million years ago. Geologists tell us that the Atlantic Ocean is widening by about an inch per year, North and South America drifting away from Europe and Africa. Someone has also pointed out, that an inch per year is about the same rate of growth as your fingernails. So how about this as a spiritual discipline: whenever you clip your fingernails, pick up one of the scraps, notice its width, and ponder that this is how much the ground beneath your feet has shifted since the last time you clipped your nails. Let it be a sign. We are all on a great journey, and we are on it together.
There are forces at work, pressure, and heat, pushing up from below us; gravity pushing down from above us. Erosion and wear, things giving way. New islands and mountains thrusting upward. Stick around long enough and we’ll be kissing and then crunching eastern Asia. The apocalyptic Christ notes: “There will be great earthquakes…and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” This always has been and will continue to be part of life on planet earth. “The end will not follow immediately.”
Let this be a sign: when the earth shifts, we shift with it. When the ground quakes, we feel it in our bones. When the permafrost melts and the oceans swell, and the winters warm, we cannot escape the effects. Sometimes the shifting happens an inch a year, in geologic time, sometimes shifting comes suddenly.
There’s a certain cyclical nature to all of this, especially on the evolutionary time scale of things. But what Christ is intent on communicating in his version of apocalypse, is that there is an aim to all of this. There is an emergent reality to which we must pay attention. There is, we could say, an evolutionary unfolding of things, which, as conscious human beings, we have the opportunity and commandment to notice. “Be on guard,” Jesus says. “Be alert.”
Alongside the coming apocalypse, there is another kind of coming. A coming, that, like apocalypse, is always with us. “Then you will see ‘the Human One’ coming in a cloud, with power and glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
Walter Wink says, “The perpetual coming of the Human Being is not an artifact of a prophecy that failed, but a permanent state of readiness to be part of that unimaginable transformation.” (The Human Being, p. 191).
Perhaps we don’t need to convince each other that we live in apocalyptic times. Perhaps we have all accepted this Inconvenient Truth. Perhaps, what we do need to convince each other of, to allow ourselves to believe, is that, we also live in a time when the Human One, the Christ who would carry us further along the arc of the story into a more full realization of our humanity, is also with us, coming on the clouds, with power and glory. For many of us, this is the harder truth to accept. That our redemption is near and that, if we are alert to it, we can participate in the new humanity. These human caused apocalypses need not forever be the case. This is not just a human undertaking, and not just an undertaking of God, but a partnership of the human and Divine, which Jesus modeled so radiantly for all of us.
Our job description is to not be weighed down with distraction and be caught unexpectedly. But that we would, in the gospel words, “Be on guard, “be alert at all times,” and, “to stand up and raise your heads.”
I want to end with some poetry. A few weeks ago Krista Tippet on her NPR show “On Being” interview Joanna Macy. She comes at this through the Buddhist tradition, but has very similar things to say. One of her major life projects has been translating the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, who, apparently, is a really good poet, who wrote in German and French at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. She read some of that poetry on the show. So, on this first Sunday of Advent, the season of observing Christ’s coming among us, here is a poem from Rilke, translated by Joanna Macy. It’s called “Onto a vast plain.” Book of Hours, II 1
You are not surprised at the force of the storm—
you have seen it growing.
The trees flee. Their flight
sets the boulevards streaming. And you know:
he whom they flee is the one
you move toward. All your senses
sing him, as you stand at the window.
The weeks stood still in summer.
The trees’ blood rose. Now you feel
it wants to sink back
into the source of everything. You thought
you could trust that power
when you plucked the fruit:
now it becomes a riddle again
and you again a stranger.
Summer was like your house: you know
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.
The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.
Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.