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Jesus is an apocalyptic figure. Christianity is an apocalyptic religion. Advent is an apocalyptic season.
This is very hard.
Apocalyptic means revealing, disclosure, unveiling. What has been hidden is brought to light. A great reversal is coming—swiftly, shockingly, out of the blue. Time is short. The weak will be strong. The mighty will be thrown down.
Not surprisingly, apocalyptic ideas give hope to the hopeless. Patient reform, gradual improvement are of no use to them. The notion that slowly and through concerted effort things might get better is less believable than the idea that a mighty God will reach into history to tear everything up by the roots, to comfort the suffering and reward the poor.
But you pretty much already knew all that.
Lutheran pastor and provocateur, Nadia Bolz-Weber, has tried to normalize “apocalypse” by reminding us that it need not refer to the end of time. It simply means disclosure. For example, the #MeToo movement is exposing the patriarchy and crassness that have always been there, just never acknowledged. The current state of politics in the US reveals that probably 15-20 percent of Americans have always had semi-fascist leanings.
Apocalypses are happening all the time, all around us and in our lives. A divorce may reveal that a marriage wasn’t what we thought it was. Those dazed and disbelieving people you see on TV, neighbors of a newly-discovered serial killer, muttering “He always seemed like such a nice guy,” are having an apocalypse.
I trust you understand how talking about upheaval, or saying things like “fallen, fallen is Babylon the great” is a difficult fit with sugar plum fairies. James Alison calls the apocalyptic tone of Advent a necessary “puncturing” of our half-truths, fantasies, and complacent religion. Wow! But how am I to sync that with chestnut’s roasting on an open fire, or even Christmas-program-shepherds dressed in bathrobes? This is the preacher’s dilemma in Advent. I’ve pretty much waved the white flag.
This is about more than Advent
“It is hard to stand on your tiptoes for two thousand years.” That’s not original to me, but I think it conveys part of the challenge for Christians. How to be eager and vigilant for two millennia? We see a gradual making peace with time and a dimming of apocalyptic expectations in the well-known statement attributed to Martin Luther. “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” We may like Luther’s sentiment, but it pretty much dampens any apocalyptic energy.
As 21st century Western people, we simply are not hopeless enough or weak enough to appreciate apocalyptic views. Apocalyptic energy is like reggae music. We say we like it. But it isn’t for us or from us. It is the voice of the rebel, the desperado. I think I’m okay with the mighty being thrown down from their thrones, and I’d like to see the hungry fed. But the rich being sent away empty sounds like a bummer of a Christmas.
An apocalyptic outlook is arduous, sometimes fanatical. It demands do-or-die decisions. When I read some of Jesus’s words I want to respond “easy for a 30 year old bachelor to say.”
I hear bombastic preachers trying to tap into apocalyptic energy. “A mighty reckoning is on its way. The ax will fall. A bright light will shine into the darkest, filthiest corners of our society and our hearts…” But it rings a bit hollow when you’re adding on to the church building, consulting your broker, and planning next summer’s vacation.
Last September, here on The Twelve, during the tumultuous Cavanaugh hearings, Jason Lief sounded about as apocalyptic as I’ve heard. Riffing on the prophet Amos, Jason wrote things like, “The time has come for our politics to die; it has become too sick and twisted to save. Our politics have become infected with privilege as the rich and famous dance on the backs of the poor.” When we become despairing enough, we turn apocalyptic.
But being who we actually are, (powerful and privileged) within minutes we’re encouraging others to write to their congressperson, improve our education system, or sign this or that petition. We can’t quite shake our incurable hope of progress and improvement.
Apocalyptic outlooks give Christianity energy and urgency, but probably some instability too, and after 2,000 years maybe there is also a tinge of insincerity.
Counterpoint with Wisdom
For me, the wisdom tradition serves as a helpful counterpoint to apocalyptic energy. Wisdom values the small and the everyday, the beauty and goodness of the common. It offers patience and contentment, if perhaps making space for complacency too. It gives us practical advice for a meaningful life. “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.” Jesus’s beatitudes carry a wisdom tone, even if they are buzzing with apocalyptic reversals.
Last Palm Sunday on The Twelve, Joshua Vis shared a challenging post, “The End of Triumphal Interventions.” Josh sounded similar to biblical scholars who contend that over time Jesus himself became disillusioned with his own apocalyptic hopes. Jesus then tried to almost force God’s hand into an apocalyptic intervention by his brazen, rabble-rousing entry into Jerusalem. But to no avail.
From this Josh concludes
Stop hoping that God is going to intervene and make it all okay…We have to face unknowing and sadness and suffering, and, choose to affirm life anyway. And we should affirm life! Life is incredible!
We should reject the idea of a fantastical and mercurial God who occasionally breaks into our world to save someone from pain and suffering…not because God has abandoned us, but because God has empowered us. God will be experienced through acts of justice, graciousness, kindness, mercy, and love. Through everyday acts that celebrate life-as-it-is and seek the flourishing of all peoples, God becomes manifest in our lives.
This sounds more like a refutation of the apocalyptic than a counterpoint. Of course the Holy Week story ends with that most apocalyptic of all ideas—resurrection—the innocent are vindicated, martyrs given everlasting life.
A whimpering conclusion
I detest the inevitable, insipid endings too many of my freshmen use on their essays. It goes something like, “Both sides are needed so that a good balance may be found.” But folks, I’m well over my word limit here and I’m not going to resolve this today. Sorry. You won’t either. At different times it confounds me and dispirits me. It preoccupies me. But it can also console me and give me hope.
Perhaps it’s too similar to Luther’s “plant a tree” maxim, but I’ve always loved Bruce Cockburn’s claim, “If this were the last night of the world, what would I do that was different? What would I do that was different, unless it was champagne with you?”