These passages are so familiar—especially to those who know a lot of choral music!—that it’s easy to sleep through them despite the watchfulness they call for.
They speak of great mysteries. Soon, we will be earnestly anticipating a birth that happened two millennia ago. But first, we must be sure we’re alert and prepared for his coming again.
We start to prepare for the birth of Christ by looking at the Big Picture: Isaiah’s description of the kind of world God has always planned for us—and for God, in Christ—to inhabit. Perhaps we need to see that vision as clearly as possible in order to properly orient ourselves toward the coming baby in the manger.
The Gospel reading, one of the “little apocalypses” in the New Testament (the big one being the book of Revelation), sounds incredibly ominous. Two women are cooking; one “taken” and the other “left.” Two (men, we presume) are out working in the field; one is “taken” and the other “left.” This conjures up images from certain branches of Christianity, where the coming of Christ puts a catastrophic end to history. But before God destroys the world, the righteous are pulled out of it—quite literally. In the “rapture,” those “taken” are caught up into heaven with Christ, and those “left” behind will suffer a terrible fate. But here, Jesus sets up a parallel with the flood, which “swept away” all those who were not prepared as Noah was. I don’t quite know what Jesus is talking about here, but I don’t see the rapture paradigm in it. What I see very clearly is that he wants us to “be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” And that is true whether you read it in terms of a rapture-event or the fact that none of us knows, or can control, when we will die.
Full disclosure: I was raised in a tradition that taught the rapture as dogma; I am now in one that remains agnostic about what these things really mean.
The genre of apocalyptic literature, common in Second-Temple Judaism, was designed to reveal, as though pulling back the curtain of the world as we understand it, what is actually more real than what we perceive with our physical senses. It wasn’t about predicting future events. The catastrophic imagery we now associate with the word “apocalypse” (which actually means “unveiling”) is a metaphor for just how dramatic an adjustment we have to make to both see and live into the reality being revealed. It reflects the fact that to go from our world into the world Isaiah is describing, for instance, we have to make painful adjustments.
That’s why we tend to reduce an image like the lion lying down with the lamb into cute pictures for the fronts of Christmas cards. We actually aren’t fit yet to fully see that kind of radical peace. It seems childish to us—naïve—but if it were, it would be vulnerable. We see it that way because, in our world, peace is the absence of conflict; but that kind of peace can be destroyed at the whim of a tyrant, an intruder, a disaster, an election, or the stock market. The peace that Isaiah only really hints at by way of metaphor is one that cannot be threatened, because it is grounded in God.
So we look at the long-term plan for the cosmos, and find that it is one of safety and peace. The Psalmist recognizes just how compelling this vision is: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.'” The tribes of Israel all stream toward God’s dwelling, God’s Temple. Why? “To praise the name of the Lord.” In other words, to enjoy it. To delight in it. Nothing to ask for, no cause to plead; just a place, where God dwells and human beings belong, and all is harmony: “Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity with itself.”
We’re getting closer to being able to start thinking about God becoming human, and to see God as a human baby in a particular time and place. But we still have some dots to connect: OK, I’m here…and God’s vision is…well, over there. What do I need to do to start heading in that direction? (Chances are, I need to do a 180-degree turn; that’s really what “repentance” means.)
Luckily for us, the peace of God enters our world, embodied in a baby in a manger. We may not be able to get to the world Isaiah describes, but we can get to that manger. Let us go! (Traveling music: David Hurd’s setting of Psalm 122.)
If we’re going to find the baby, though, we need to know which baby we’re looking for. Remember, we think of peace like we think of innocence: something a sweet little baby enjoys but soon loses. We need to find the baby who is peace, who is innocence. Maybe that’s why, this first Sunday in Advent, we focus on Christ’s second coming. I think that invites us to build on the insights built into the way the liturgical year cycles around. The first Sunday of Advent follows on the heels of Christ the King Sunday (a.k.a. The Reign of Christ), leading us to look for this King’s return. So we would do well to remember what Christ the King is really like.
For the earliest Christians, to claim that Jesus was Lord (or King) was a political statement, and a radical one. The gospels, in fact—the fourth in particular—overtly depict Christ’s crucifixion as his throne. That actually makes some sense, since, as Joel Marcus has, I think, convincingly argued, crucifixion was a parody of enthronement, reserved for such crimes as insubordination, slave revolt, or rebellion against the governing authorities. (You may need to create a free account to read the article online, or pay to download it, through JSTOR with the link just shared; here’s a link to another blog that discusses it a little.)
In fact, Jesus’ cross was his throne of judgment: from it, he forgave those who crucified him, and invited one of the bandits (read: political rebel) crucified with him to also join him in Paradise. In his crucifixion, we see what kind of king he is—what kingship, or lordship, really is. Apocalyptic literature—such as the brief passage we have in today’s Gospel—is meant to reveal what we don’t see. Unfortunately, it often seems obscure to us modern(ist) readers, and hides what it reveals behind some rather violent imagery. For too long, some Christians have believed that the Second Coming is when Christ flips over the tables and wrests worldly power away from his enemies and claims it as his own. Behaving much like the despots and egotistical leaders we see all around us, their Christ is out for revenge and for blood. But we have to hold such readings up to the Cross, where God is most clearly revealed. There, we can see that God is not a perpetrator of violence, but suffers violence and refuses to condemn!
That is the King we await this Advent. Last Sunday, we received the welcome news that, although Donald Trump is President-Elect (and, frankly, this would apply no matter who was elected), JESUS IS LORD. Again, to say Jesus is Lord, or Christ is King, is not to say the position of Lord or King remains stable but Christ occupies it instead of Caesar; it’s to say that human kings and human lords are getting it all wrong. Fundamentally wrong, not just in the particulars. True power is not coercion, it’s not money, it’s not violence; it’s self-giving, kenotic (self-emptying) love. Its throne is not in a palace—or in a cathedral—but in the cross-hairs of Caesar’s wrath: on a cross, where traitors to worldly power are routinely and publicly made examples of.
Isaiah promises that one day, all the world will orient itself to God and look for this kind of King. He presents a glimpse into what that might look like. But that vision, for him, gives way to a call: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” Like the Psalmist, he finds that vision so compelling, the only response is to run toward it. Like Paul, Isaiah is saying that now is the time to live by the rules of the eschaton, the time when all things are made new. Yes, one day, the armies of this world will not be shooting enemy combatants or bombing civilians; they will be feeding them instead. It’s not despite the fact that we’re not there yet; it’s because that future is more real than a solid thing that exists, that we must live our lives as if it were already fully realized.
And I think that’s where the violent imagery of apocalypse comes in. For this world to realign all its values with the kind of King that Christ is on the Cross will feel like terrible violence, chaos, and destruction. For us inhabitants of this world to live into that future will require painful changes and drastic commitments. But in our baptism, we’ve already died to this world and have been raised into the new life of Christ. We are not yet fully oriented toward God; but we are set at odds with this world and its ways. We cannot play by this world’s rules: might makes right…people deserve what they get…a person’s value depends on what they contribute to the GDP…you are not your brother’s keeper…
Advent is famously a season of “now and not yet.” We know that Christ has come, and we await his coming. Christ has come, and Christ will come. So while we wait for the re-creation of the world, its re-orientation God-ward, we live as though it has already happened. Thus St. Paul instructs that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers,” and we should therefore “live honorably as in the day,” making “no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
In other words—the words of Isaiah—”Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”