“But in those days…the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
My dad is an Advent kind of guy. He would never admit this of course, since in his church tradition the lectionary is a bit of an anathema. Regardless, he lives life with an Adventian mind (and yes, I just made that adjective up). By this I mean he is a modern day apocalyptic prophet. He is always looking toward the end. He’s dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, and holds a rather negative opinion about our ability to turn it all around. God will turn it around–of this he is quite sure–in some cataclysmic cosmic event that will prove once and for all that God is God over all, and we are quite small in comparison. But not without things getting a whole lot worse before they get a whole lot better.
You may not share this pessimistic outlook on our collective future. I don’t blame you. Talk of the sun refusing to shine, the moon not giving its light, and the stars falling from the heavens is a bit dramatic. We don’t want to scare the children with the theological equivalent of the ‘get under the desk atomic bomb drills.’ We don’t want our children to spend their days wide-eyed staring at the horizon for the first sign of the mushroom plume. Extinction level events are a morbid and an all together frightening topic that need not garner any of our attention this holiday season. We’ll save that attention for Black Friday door buster sales, and Christmas time seasonal promotions.
But apparently my dad, and Jesus, won’t entirely let us. Jesus, the adult Jesus, busts anachronistically into the first week of advent spewing out threats of the ultimate end, and begging his followers to “Keep awake” lest the meta-historical cosmic cataclysmic collapse catch them with their pants down.
Take a lesson from the fig tree, says Jesus, as soon as its branches become tender and put forth leaves you know that summer is near. So also you know that when the bad things I’ve mentioned arrive then the universe will go black and the stars will fall.
My dad, who happens to love astronomy, would likely describe it in this way: When all that Christ mentioned arrives the sun will run low on its hydrogen fuel supply, gravity will force the sun to collapse, a small amount of hydrogen will form in a shell around the sun’s core, and the outer reaches of the sun will go red giant on us, expanding into the orbit of mercury, and then Venus, and finally gobbling up our little planet like a marshmallow that got a little too close to the campfire.
The only real difference between the pre-scientific doomsday of Jesus, and the amateur astronomer’s modern warning, is time frame. Jesus predicted a great calamity within his own generation. The sun won’t go red giant for another five billion years. Of course my dad would quickly remind you that unless we figure a few things out, and repent in sackcloth and ashes, with a casual wave of his left pinky God could certainly speed things up a bit.
It all sounds so wonderful, someone pass the spiked egg nog.
I think we all breathe a sigh of relief when the first week of Advent is over. It’s just so strange. Here we are making plans for visiting family, hunting down the perfect gift, baking up warm gooey goodies, casting a cute children’s Christmas play, and preparing for a raucous advent musical celebration, and the whole while some crazy man (sorry dad) is pointing to the sky and shouting. Someone quiet him down! Are there no noise pollution laws here?
And what of this advice to “Keep awake”?! Do you know how tired we all are? We don’t get any sleep this time of year. Too much to do. Besides, keep awake for what? Empty promises? Justice rolling down like waters? Righteousness like an ever flowing stream? Don’t give me Amos, not at a time like this. Look at our world! Just give us our holiday. Do you know what holidays allow us to do? They allow us to put a thin veneer over all the injustice and lack of righteousness. And it’s a good thing, because we’ve been waiting a while and we’re still mired in it, right up to our necks. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” And that generation has passed away. And the sun still shines, and the moon still gives its light, and the stars are still in their heavenly places, and evil, injustice, and unrighteousness still have a foothold in all we know and love.
The embarrassing prediction is smoothed over by people who say that Jesus was talking about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. After all, that is how chapter 13 begins. The disciples leaving the temple look around them and proclaim in their best Little Red Riding Hood voice, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings.” And Jesus replies, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be torn down.” Later a few concerned disciples come to Jesus clandestinely and whisper in his ear, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished.” It’s then that Jesus nose dives into the apocalyptic meltdown of the cosmos.
But does any of it really matter? Just let us have our holiday. Let us have some rest. Let us have homemade fudge, gingerbread cookies, and Bing Crosby spinning on the turn table. Give us six inches of snow on Christmas eve, the sticky stuff so the kids can make snowmen and snow forts, and only after everyone has had safe travel, and a perfect Christmas day with dangling icicles and frosted pine trees. Oh, and while you’re at it, great cosmic santa, I would also love the new Sharp Aqua 80 inch HDTV, the commercial says its ‘viewmongous’ and ‘spectacularge.’ We’ll save money really, with the rise in theatre prices. But whatever you get me, let us push aside the negativity.
What if God said ‘okay’? Here is it, wrapped in a bow, your perfect holiday. No more apocalyptic. It’s all yours, take it, enjoy. Dad, keep your mouth shut. Jesus, keep it under wraps.
Now what? Are you happy? For how long? Now we get to pretend–like Stepford wives–that all is right. Now we can lull ourselves to sleep, in cozy temperature controlled houses, nestled under an off white down comforter while visions of sugar plums dance in our heads. Now we can be just like the world around us, with no counter narrative, no distinct gospel proclamation, and no divine mandate. Now we can acquiesce to the way things are, and just dull the pain of it all with a weekend bourbon, or a holiday morning mimosa, or by staring at eighty inch screens. The fact that Christ came, and that Christ is coming is not in any way disturbing but pleasant and peaceful–we’ll wait for the pie in the sky, by and by, by and by. In the meantime we’ll curl up under that bright shining sun, the one we still have five billion years to enjoy, and we’ll let the warmth rush over us and our drowsy eyelids will close over our Christian consciousness, and we will never ever develop one ounce of passion for God’s perfect future.
At least in waiting, we are given time to gain godly wisdom, and become really mad at the state of affairs–and to know that the world is subject to tyranny, oppression, violence, and lies. I don’t know why my dad feels it so strongly, when others do not, or why Jesus never shied away from pointing it out. Maybe because this holiday season there are plenty of people experiencing their darkest hour, and with no hope, fallen countenances, and defeat imminent they are crying out for God’s advent, and an apocalyptic event that reorders all of creation.
Do you see that in the depths of the struggle, at the heart of the pessimism, is an undeniable and inexhaustible need for a better future. It is a recognition that we are not what we were meant to be. If we put that aside, then we are what we are. We’re fast asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane and the whole while Christ is pleading with us to stay awake with him and cry out ‘abba father.’ Careful what you wish for? We don’t need another door buster, but we sure need apocalyptic. It scares the Christian right back into us. It makes us scan the horizon for opportunities to work alongside God in shaking the heavens. It makes us all Advent kind of people, and gives us all adventian minds. And awoken from our sleep, in the cosmos’ darkest hour, we see the heavens crumble before us and we know God will turn it around–of this we are quite sure.