Already/not yet, an Advent Eschatology
Today’s scripture readings introduce us to the season of Advent. A short four-week season smooshed between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In fact, for some, it has become no more than a precursor to Christmas, a liturgical appetizer before the festive main course. Yet Advent is bigger than this. It is a time to prepare for, and reflect on, the coming of the Christ child, as well as time to prepare for, and reflect on, the Second Coming.
Last year’s Gospel reading, in a lot of ways; fit this theme in a much more obvious way. It involved John the Baptist preaching that the Christ was coming.
A skillful preacher can take John’s words and point them toward Jesus’ coming at the time of John, then hope that the congregation squints a little, and listens a little differently, and understands John’s words to be coming out of the preacher’s mouth at that very moment, saying “Christ is coming.” In that way, Christ’s coming and coming again can be proclaimed together.
But that’s not the Gospel lesson for today. Today Jesus, not John, pronounces that, “they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” Today Jesus, the one we proclaim as our Lord and our Savior, says, “this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.” Today Jesus Christ implores us to, “watch.”
That it is Jesus who is speaking these words should give us pause, as it has for past Christians. Further, I feel that our interpretation of these words say a lot about our eschatology.
Now, eschatology comes from the Greek words Eschatos—meaning last, and logi—meaning the study of. Thus Eschatology is the study of the last things.
So, what I’m saying is our understanding of the last things is going to affect how we read Christ’s words in today’s gospel.
Now there are many eschatolgies out there, both Christian and not, from the destructive and pessimistic end perceived in Scandinavian myth, to the cyclical quasi-endings of Hindu and Buddhist understanding.
Within Christian circles there are two overarching tendencies in our eschatologies. Either we have a backwards looking eschatology, sometimes called a realized eschatology, or we have a distant forward looking eschatology sometimes called a millennial eschatology.
This first way of looking at “the end” affirms that phrases such as, “they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory,” are describing, and finding completion in, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection in the early part of the 1st century of the Common Era. This view of the end of history affirms what Luther termed a “theology of the cross.” Christ does not reign in might and dread, but as the suffering servant enthroned upon an implement of execution.
Alternatively, this second eschatology sees much of the Bible, specifically Daniel and Revelation, as well as Christ’s words today, as pointing toward a cataclysm and the eventual reign of Christ, both of which take place sometime in the near or distant future.
I would purpose that neither of these eschatologies are complete, one without the other. Neither eschatology reflects the meaning of this season of Advent. The first strengthens faith but forgets hope, the later sacrifices faith for hope. But together these two mutually re-enforce one another.
Further, neither of these eschatologies alone heed Christ’s imperative, his command, “Watch.”
Just two days after my mother returned home from an extended visit to India we’ve watched the news of militants in Mubai attacking the city and killing at least 195 people and injuring hundreds more. And I have to ask is this Christ’s reign?
When I see the news that Black Friday shopping in Long Island turning so frenzied that a Walmart employee was trampled to death and a customer was jostled so much that she had a miscarriage. I wonder aloud if this can be the realization of the Kingdom of Christ?
When I read of nightclub shootings and cops dying and when the local paper runs red with blood—when I look around and find war, suicide bombings, poverty, starvation, and genocide, when I see fractured families, alienation, greed, and misunderstanding. I plead that this isn’t the kingdom and the power and the glory.
That said, when I watch, when I look at the history, and the present life, of humanity I also see no reason to wait for cataclysm, wait for dragons and false prophets—wild images of a genre most people no longer care to understand. Because if you don’t see cataclysm yet you haven’t been paying attention! You haven’t been watching!
It is the tension between these two eschatologies where we find ourselves. Christ has already came and liberated us from sin—and we have faith in his efficacious actions—yet Christ has not yet returned and so we await him in hope.
One metaphor for this Advent Eschatology, this already/not yet reality of the Christian life, that I’ve heard often is one from world war two.
This metaphor is about D-Day and V.E. Day. On D-day Allied troops gained a beachhead in Europe and, at least in the minds of some, the defeat of the Axis powers was made inevitable that day, June 6th 1944. Yet this victory was not fully worked out until May 8th 1945 on V.E-Day.
Likewise our readings for today are already/not yet readings. Isaiah is writing to those Exiles from Babylon newly returned to the promise land. They have been delivered back to Judah, yet they cry out for God.
They want to see God coming in dangerous might, with fire and heat, earthquake and anger. And all the while they call for His compassion to be upon them.
This reading also provide us with another image with which to describe the already/not yet. God is the potter, and his people the clay. In Christ’s coming the clay of humanity has been worked and molded into a pot. None the less, it has yet to be fired in the kiln, hardened and made permanently that which the potter created. Again, not a perfect metaphor, but an attempt.
Paul, who experienced the risen Christ on the way to Damascus, finds himself enmeshed in the reality of the already not yet. He writes of the grace of God given in Christ and also of waiting for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And that brings us back to Jesus’ words in Mark. The crucifixion looms before Jesus and here too we find the tension of the Already/not yet. “This generation will not pass away…” yet, “of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” In Christ’s emptying himself of divinity he too finds himself resting confidently in God’s actions. Yet he also leans forward expecting that this merciful God he knows, and that we know through him, is God from beginning to end. The same God that we find victorious on the cross we also will find victorious at the close of history.
If we watch the world through the eyes of an Advent Eschatology then we find ourselves in line with the prophets and visionaries of every age.
With Zechariah we watch for a day when every bell rings with the words, “Holy to the LORD,” and when the very scrubbing pots become holy vessels of worship, even as we know it is already so.
With Isaiah we watch for a day when, “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The uneven shall be made level and the rough places a plain.” A day when “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together,” even as we know it is already so.
With John, the author of Revelation, we watch for a time when, “there shall no more be anything accursed,” even as we know it is already so.
We have faith in the full and present power of Christ’s death on the cross—that through it death is destroyed, His sting is gone. And we hope eagerly for the fulfillment of this promise worked out in a complete all-encompassing redemption.
As we say at Eucharist Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.