One of the things I both love and hate about Christianity is the presence of apocalyptic thought and vision. I especially love/hate it when it’s Jesus who is doing the apocalyptic talking. Such is the case in the reading I’m focusing on today, which comes from the RCL readings for the first Sunday of Advent:
Matthew 24: 36-44: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.
Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
So why do I love/hate it so much?
I hate it because I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything good come from apocalypse-centric forms of religion. There are nearly endless historical examples of apocalyptic movements taking part in violence, or deciding the world isn’t worth saving, or embracing the belief that somehow the thing that matters most to God/Goddess/The Divine is that you and I simply believe in the right God/Goddess/Deity and then we’ll escape eternal punishment, leaving behind all those other suckers who didn’t get it right. Ugh.
That’s a lot of really nasty baggage. So here’s why I love it.
In its best form, Christianity never speaks of life without speaking of death, and never speaks of death without speaking of new life. (Most other religions also do this, for what its worth, in their own ways – especially in the mystical traditions.) This is not always readily apparent because as good, optimistic American Christians we tend to only like the happy endings. We like to talk about the resurrection but not the death; the joy in the morning without the grief at night. We like to say “passed away” instead of “died,” and pretend that it’s never really going to happen to us anyway.
But that rub between death and life, shadow and light, absence and presence – that friction is part of the energy at the very heart of Christian life and formation. The dissolution of those binaries – think, for example, of power and weakness – is at the heart of what Jesus lived and taught.
Today I’m thinking about this in terms of mental constructs and self-image… about the painful – and sacred – process of allowing the Spirit to let the “end times” come to who we think we are and the process of being made new. If we’re doing this life thing right, I think it happens over and over and over again, even constantly. It can be as simple as telling yourself for decades that you “aren’t an artist,” only to discover in old age that you love painting on canvas and maybe even are pretty good at it and can bring joy to others through the work.
It can also be as profound, and life-changing, as a white person telling herself for decades that she “isn’t racist,” and then suddenly being able and willing to listen to people of color who have been hurt by her. These are the kinds of apocalypse-moments when we suddenly realize we aren’t as good or as blameless as we really want to be; when we realize that we have metaphoric and actual blood on our hands, too; when we realize that in order to be involved with actual justice and healing work in the world we need to keep dying, over and over again, to lifeless and distorted ways of seeing the world. It’s painful, oh so painful. And it’s the work that this world depends on.
Here’s the good news: there is always more life on the other side of those deaths. More possibility for growth, for compassion, for renewal, for relationship and community… more space for Truth to blossom and make us all new. More justice, more hope, more fairness. More living into who and what we are called to be.
Thanks be to God!