The First Advent Gospel Lection for 2008
Mark 13:24-26: But in those days, after that suffering,
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.
Then they will see the "Son of Man coming in the clouds" with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
Biblical scholars name Mark 13 "The Little Apocalypse." To be contrasted with the Big Apocalypse, otherwise known as The Revelation of John, the last book of the Christian Bible. An apocalypse is a dramatic, to the point of being horrific, conclusion to human history, attended with cataclysmic natural events and holocausts of mortal contriving. The lection begins after a listing of these "suffering[s]" in a previous verse:
Mark 13:8: For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.
Other treacheries attend the end of the world when the powers that be, on earth and in heaven, take special delight in persecuting those who believe in Christ and his peaceable kingdom:
Mark 13:13: And you will be hated by all because of my name.
What on earth (I'll ask it for you) are these red letter words doing on the eve of the coming of Christ? Are the people who design the lectionary possessed with a streak of perversity? Are they closet masochists, finding pain as an antidote for this season's jollity? I would mostly absolve them of these suspicions. "Mostly" since there has to be a strong inference of a heavy-handed tendency to say to us as we hang the tinsel on the tree, "There's more to the Gospel than love and kindness."
There are, you see, three tenses to Christ's advent: past, present (the most overlooked), and future. That is, Bethlehem, December 2008, and the end of the world. And it is the end of the world that Mark 13 addresses. Christ will return after the apocalyptic events.
Apocalypse foreshortens (telescopes) time, concentrating on the bad parts. Like going to your 50th high school reunion when you weren't there for the last ten: chatting with a stay-at-home grad friend who has kept up on the life stories of classmates, you ask, "How about Joe Smith?" A slight pause is followed by a wrinkling of the forehead and a tightening of the jaw as the friend asks you, "Oh, didn't you hear?" And he recounts in detail the sad end of a classmate's time on earth. Divorce, accidents, failures, sickness, you name it, all of the insults of this mortal life to which this mortal flesh is subject, they are spilled out in the celebratory hall where couples do the ball room dancing they learned at Phil Jones' Thursday night dance class fifty years earlier. It's like reading the Little Apocalypse while sitting in Santa's lap.
Which is to say (at least what I am saying), the apocalypse describes life on earth, not just the end time events. Nation against nation? Has it ever been otherwise, except for a few scattered decades of peace during which armies were assembled and hatreds nourished? Earthquakes? As the world shrinks electronically, we sense the tremors half a world away before the aftershocks begin. And our global neighbors drown in consequent tsunamis. Famines? When was the last time you watched TV? The sight of the bloated body of a third world child makes the Christmas plum pudding a guilt trip. Always. Year after year. Generation after generation. Like the preacher (Ecclesiastes) asserts, "There is nothing new under the sun." Certainly no calamity, as has been thought often this past week in the wake of the terrorist attack in Mumbai as talking heads on instant news describe that horror as "India's 9/11."
That is, those preachers who trumpet the terrible events attending the end of the world, as if they are something in a future near at hand, are missing the point. We live in the end times. Always have. Since the cross and empty tomb.
But the Little Apocalypse contains a bright shining moment: the return of Christ. The Second Coming! Which is something of a misnomer, considering the repeated advents of the Galilean rabbi who, a multitude of witnesses testify, has been and will be with us "to the end of the age." The apocalypse, you see, has a happy ending. The one nailed to a killing tree will return and bring forth from its hiding place beneath the surface of things the realm of love and peace and justice established one thousand nine hundred and seventy-five years ago. That event is foreshortened in the telling; the glory gets a telescopic rendition just like the horrors.
The stars fall from heaven and the spiritual hosts (the implications is that such powers are not necessarily benign) in high places are shattered. Christ appears descending from the clouds. No doubt who he is. And no doubt he is in charge. Forever. That's the denouement which has caught the imagination of artists for centuries. Thousands of stained glass windows around the world celebrate that grand moment at the end of time. Here's one of them:
I do not minimize the end-of-timeness of the Second Coming, God's final exclamation mark on human history... when it's all over, up there ahead in a moment that could be tomorrow or it could be another thousand years. No one knows, and anyone who thinks he does is tempting not just fate but Jesus who famously tells us that it is not for us to know the times or periods appointed by the Father's authority. Get on with life, live it to the fullest, most generous, kindest, lovingest, faithfulest you can manage. Leave the rest to the Almighty.
With that disclaimer stated, I go for an understanding of Christ's return in glory comparable to the nowness of the apocalypse. For in faith (and, therefore, in fact) Jesus has never gone away. That at least is the testimony of many, many souls whom it has been my privilege to pastor during half a century. Often, though not always, the Lord's presence is celebrated by those in extremity. Which Bertrand Russell might sneer at as proof of belief motivated by the fear of death, but which Jesus finds as confirmation of his beatitude, "How blest are those who know their need of God." (Matthew 5:3 NEB) Yes, such ones are not likely to be as conflicted as I am with the burden (if also the advantage) of Cartesian logic. But their certainty of Jesus being with them has been palpable to this pastor who went to them to provide reassurance when, as it turns out, they were giving it to me. Often I arrived at the doorstep with the bread and cup of Christ's presence, and found that he had already beaten me to the door.
Or consider No. 392 in the United Methodist Hymnal, a prayer, a Prayer for a New Heart. Written by Dag Hammerskjold. Remember him? The General Secretary of the United Nations, from Sweden, the one who was killed in the crash of an airplane over Africa. Not until his tragic death did most of the world come to understand that he was a deeply faithful soul, something of a closet mystic, whose service to the world community rose from an abiding conviction about this mortal life, that it is fulfilled in giving oneself to and for others. Sound familiar? Like a page from the Gospel? Exactly. So Dag prays: "Give me a pure heart, that I may see thee; a humble heart, that I may hear thee; a heart of love, that I may serve thee; a heart of faith, that I may abide in thee."
Jesus promises, "I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20 NRSV). And he is... with the meek and lowly, with the high and mighty, with all sorts and conditions of humanity. The Second Coming at the end of the age has a million and more anticipations in the present hour. The baby of Bethlehem and the Savior riding a cloud in glory, are, after all is said and caroled, our Emmanuel, "God with us" yesterday, tomorrow, and today.