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1st Sunday of Advent
December 2, 2007
The season of Advent is a time of preparation for the coming (Latin adventus) of Christ. We usually think of this as preparing for the church’s remembrance of the coming of Christ in the birth of Jesus, celebrated in the feast of Christmas. But another ancient theme in the Advent season is preparing for the coming of Christ at the end of time, the “second” coming in which this created order will be deconstructed and reconstructed into the realized Reign of God. The lectionary for Advent therefore begins with the End, as the readings for this day draw from the apocalyptic literature of the scriptures.
Apocalyptic literature poses something of a problem for progressive Christians and Whiteheadian process-influenced thinkers. In Northern American popular religion these days, apocalyptic seems almost entirely the property of conservative and literalistic interpreters of scripture, who take diverse texts and attempt to assemble out of them a coherent “Biblical prophecy” narrative which gives a detailed timetable for the End of the World; but this assemblage ends up doing violence to the texts themselves by wrenching them out of context and taking them more literally than their original authors intended. In addition, Whiteheadian cosmology tends to eschew the idea of an “end of time” or single moment of experience which will both fulfill and terminate the creative advance into novelty. These tendencies, taken together, lead many progressive and processive Christians to treat apocalyptic literature as something which must be demythologized. Yet such demythologizing can easily become dismissive, treating apocalyptic either as so hopelessly mythological that we today cannot learn anything of value from it, or as a source of generally utopian ideals which can best serve our present needs by encouraging our contemporary struggles for liberation.
In engaging these readings for the First Sunday of Advent, therefore, I attempt to take these passages “seriously but not literally”; that is, I do not treat them as a literal calendar for the End, but neither do I attempt to “explain them away” as mere mythology. Interpreted within a framework which views the world as a continually co-creative advance by God and by creatures toward an ever-fuller embodiment of divine ideals for richness of experience, how do today’s readings point us toward a future of hope?
This passage from the early oracles of Isaiah of Jerusalem predates the development of full-blown apocalyptic, such as we see in Daniel, but it introduces some basic themes which became standard features of later apocalyptic literature. The prophet envisions a future time when the Temple Mount in Jerusalem will become the center of the cosmos: the “highest of the mountains,” and therefore the meeting-point between the earthly and heavenly planes; and the political center of “all the nations,” which will come to Jerusalem to be instructed in God’s Way, God’s Torah. Because of the centrality of God’s Way, conflict and warfare between peoples will no longer be necessary, therefore the people will refashion their weapons of war into implements of production for the well-being of all. If the “house of Jacob” has a special role in this transformation of the world, it is not to be rulers or victors over the unfaithful peoples, as, for instance, in Psalm 149 (“to bind their kings in chains /and their nobles with links of iron”); but their role is to be exemplary, “walking in the light of the Lord” so that all peoples may know God’s way as it is embodied in a particular people’s common life. From a process-relational point of view, it is this aspect of communal embodiment of God’s Way that is the most striking feature of the passage. The apocalyptic imagery of the City of Peace as the center of the world conveys here a message of hope that the faithful people’s striving to live in God’s Way will be taken up into, and become instrumental to, God’s renewal of the whole world. The preacher might use this passage to ask the question of the congregation, “In what concrete ways are we embodying God’s Way as central for the hope of the world?”
The psalm continues the theme of the centrality of Jerusalem, but here the emphasis is less on apocalyptic universalism and more on the tribal unity of the Jewish people. Jerusalem is a city “built at unity with itself” or “bound firmly together” (depending on the translation), where the Davidic throne ensures the unity of the faithful people. In 2007, however, the interpreter can hardly read these words without a sense of irony. In the political realities of our time, Jerusalem is a fractured city, a focus of conflict and even violence between people of three faiths. This throws into high relief the psalmist’s exhortation to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem”; although the interpreter may wish to distinguish between praying for peace and supporting the policies of the present Israeli government. If we think of Jerusalem in the terms envisioned by Isaiah—as a figure for a cosmic and earthly center for embodying God’s Way among people—then the blessing “May they prosper who love you” takes on a universal, not merely tribal, significance, becoming an invitation to cooperative work for world-wide mutual well-being.
The apocalyptic note is struck in the Romans passage principally in the observation “the night is far gone, the day is near.” But having sounded the note that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers,” Paul does not dwell on speculations about the timetable for the End. What is important is to “know what time it is,” so that the believers may live appropriately in the present moment. It is in this present moment that it is important to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light”; it is in this present moment that it is important to “live honorably” and avoid the list of vices that are the opposite of honor. The apocalyptic reference is not itself the center of interest here, but is the warrant for refocusing interest in believers’ behavior in the present toward the End. Paul describes this toward-the-future behavior as “putting on Christ” and “making no provision for the flesh.” The word “flesh” here is used, of course, in Paul’s special sense, indicating not physicality as such, but those operative patterns in human nature which resist God’s initial aims for occasions of justice and peace. This text does not imply a body-hating ascetism for the sake of some spiritualized future, as has sometimes been charged against Paul, but instead holds up the ideals of the Christ-like life as over against short-term gratifications of disconnected and unreflective desires. “Putting on the armor of light” and “putting on Christ” are treated as parallel constructions, both indicating an intentional way of life centered on embodying divine ideals in concrete praxis. It is that centered intention which Paul refers to as “waking from sleep.” A process-relational interpretation would stress that putting on Christ and waking from sleep are not instantaneous actions, accomplished once-for-all in a single moment, but are ongoing processes of conversion of life, continuing processes of co-creation in which God and the believer cooperate in successive momentary embodiments of divine ideals in successive concrete acts. The preacher might connect the symbolism of “walking in the light of the Lord” from the Isaiah passage and “putting on the armor of light” in Romans: in what light do congregants see their actions, both individual and collective, as oriented to the ends and purposes of God?
This passage actually comes from the tail-end of Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching as Matthew depicts it. It is only after describing wars and rumors of wars, plagues and earthquakes, the sun darkened and the moon turned to blood—all the features we’ve come to expect from apocalyptic—it is only after the disturbing description of the End that Jesus turns to teaching about the faithful people’s appropriate stance toward the End; and it is that teaching we read today. It is significant, given the proclivity of many interpreters to try from the texts to calculate the timetable of the End, that Jesus’ first instruction is to abandon all such calculation: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” The exact time of the End is beyond the range of human knowing, therefore what matters is to be oriented to the purposes of God in the present moment, and to let each moment finds its own end and fulfillment in God. That call to be oriented to the purposes of God is what lies behind the comparison of the End with the “days of Noah”: the people of Noah’s day “knew nothing,” were unprepared for the flood of God’s judgment, and therefore were swept away. By contrast, the people who follow Jesus in the present time can know something; they can know the purposes of God for justice, peace, and communion as revealed in Jesus; and, knowing that, they can orient themselves to God’s purposes and be taken up into God’s fulfillment. The language of two being in the field, or two grinding meal, when one is taken and one is left has an ominous ring to it, reminiscent of the theology of the “Left Behind” series. But it is important to note that the text does not give any criteria for being taken or being left beyond “keeping awake”: being taken into God or being swept away does not seem to be dependent on any moral accomplishments, any orthodox belief statements, any liturgical practice, or any religious community membership; the only operative criterion here seems to be an aware responsiveness to the “Son of Man,” the advent of divine presence in human personhood. That point is reinforced by the parables of the End Jesus tells just following this passage, in chapter 25, and most especially in the “parable of the sheep and goats” in 25:31-46. The preacher might want to make an explicit connection between being “awake” to the coming of the Son of Man and the recognition of the Son of Man in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. It is the very unexpectedness of the coming of divine presence in human personhood—whether at the End or in everyday community—which demands the faithful be always ready, always prepared to recognize divine presence and respond to it. Likewise, in process terms, we might interpret the End not simply as the end-of-the-world, but as the fulfillment of each actual occasion in God: as God receives into Godself all the completed moments of the universe, God weaves them into a single feeling, the “Adventure of the Universe as One.” God feels all the feelings of the world, there are no negative prehensions in God; yet in the weaving together of the world’s feelings, God “leaves behind” the “revolts of destructive evil, purely self-regarding” by dismissing them “into their triviality of merely individual facts” (Process and Reality, 346). Refusing to “wake from sleep,” refusing to “put on Christ,” refusing to “keep awake” to the divine presence amounts to a self-condemnation to triviality in God’s co-creative advance into novelty; faith is openness to the importance of God’s aim in the present moment and its superjective fulfillment in God’s everlastingness. The season of Advent is a call to such faith.
Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership. He is a co-author of the book, The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in the Contemporary World. and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.