First Sunday of Advent
As a kid, I grew up in churches that were fascinated by apocalyptic themes and speech, including predictions of Jesus’ return. Some of the most talked-about sermons were about what we called the “end-times.” Christ’s arrival was discussed as a moment of terror and confusion for many as he came as the final judge. Even in my youth group, this was the main topic of interest, especially for high school students who were looking to go deeper in learning about their faith. As a result, we spent many senior Bible study sessions talking about when Jesus will return, discussing what will precede that return, and watching movie versions of our premillennialist theology.
For a variety of reasons, I do not attend this church (or this kind of church) anymore. As a result, I hear less emphasis on Christ’s return. Those images of judgment have been replaced, and there is less fear in our church services. It can give the impression that my earlier church’s obsession with “end-times” was based on a silly misunderstanding.
However, when we turn to the lectionary passages for this week, we find plenty of apocalyptic material, especially in the gospel lesson. Jesus tells his disciples about “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars” and discusses nations that are “confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” (Luke 21:25). People are fainting from fear. He says, “Heaven and earth will pass away” (Luke 21:33); it is quite a scene that Jesus describes.
This week, we find ourselves, of course, at the beginning of the season of Advent, a season that begins each Christian year and places us on a path of preparation for Christmas and the coming of the Christ-child, the “righteous branch” that Jeremiah mentions (Jeremiah 33:15). We travel this path to Bethlehem every year, methodically lighting the candles on the Advent wreath until we arrive at Christmas Eve.
But there is more to this season. Advent is also our preparation for the return of Christ, an event that is yet to come. This is where we come back to apocalypse, but not exactly in the same way as the church of my younger days. According to Barry Harvey, we can get confused because our English word end is ambiguous, meaning either the termination of something or the goal of a particular act. Sometimes – as with apocalypses – it can actually mean both. As a result, “In apocalyptic thought there is an intrinsic relationship between purpose and finality, between speaking of the aim of life and its limits, between the course that creation is taking in history and the consummation that awaits it.”1
Christ’s return in the end-times is also the end that shapes all of the story, including our present. Our sense of time changes as the future forms the present. In our usual encounter with time, we ask questions like: Do I have enough time to do a set number of tasks? Where is my next appointment? How long until we do something else? When we experience time in this fashion, waiting can be boring and unproductive.
Advent’s sense of time is far more dynamic and even chaotic. Not only is the future impacting the present, but time folds in on itself in such a way that things can change in an instant. Jeremiah’s phrase “In those days” might actually be right around the corner. Even when we are waiting, then, we are not simply counting seconds and minutes on a countdown; there is an active expectancy that demands vigilance.
It also prompts us to hope – a focal emphasis during this week of Advent. As the Luke passage displays, when all of the confusion and chaos unfolds, Jesus appears “with power and great glory,” the people of God “stand up and raise [their] heads because [their] redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). Jesus’ arrival – both in Bethlehem and at the end – upends the existing order for “all who live on the face of the whole earth” (Luke 21:35).
Our senses and experience of the world are reshaped in this sort of apocalyptic language. In short, we see the world through a different set of lenses and see more as a result. Jesus talks about being alert and being observant, paying attention to what the Second Vatican Council called “the signs of the times” or what Karl Barth named as “secular parables of the Kingdom.”2
Our yearly journey through Advent is designed to school us in precisely this sort of apocalyptic thinking. Only by learning to see the world in this way can we wait on the Lord.
1 Barry Harvey, Baptists and the Catholic Tradition, 8.
2 Gaudium et Spes, 4; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/3, 113-17.