Advent as Ending: Apocalypse as Good News
David R. Weiss – December 16, 2018
The Gospel in Transition #3 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
Advent typically begins with an image of ending. Each year of its three-year cycle churches following the Revised Common Lectionary find an apocalyptic Gospel text appointed for the first Sunday of Advent. These texts add an unabashed edge of apocalyptic energy to the too often domesticated pageantry of Christmas.
Climate change has its own apocalyptic energy—as looming world-crashing threat. Yet one of the paradoxes of the Transition Movement is its determination to lean into this impending crisis as opportunity to re-center ourselves on what really matters: living lightly on the earth, locally in community, and deeply in our humanity. It’s a challenging paradox to sustain.
Perhaps it’s helpful to recall that in the Bible apocalyptic literature is actually rooted in radical hope. Such a perspective offers some discomforting but provocative connections.
Although there are a variety of biblical passages (like the Advent gospels readings) where an apocalyptic tone surfaces, there are two great instances of apocalyptic literature in the Bible: Daniel and Revelation. Both feature near-psychedelic imagery in which harrowing portraits of a collapsing world are presented. Reading them from our vantage point—and projecting their message into the future as a prediction of world-ending events—it’s easy to find them unsettling. But, in fact, both books were written for people living in such a harrowing present that they were actually offered (and received!) as good news—gospel—breaking into this world in its most extreme moments.
In both cases the authors were writing for people living under harsh societal oppression and brutal persecution by imperial powers. In this context, apocalyptic cataclysm—overwhelming as the imagery is—was a message of radical hope. The present insufferable world was about to be swept away. As it needed to be if there was to be a path forward.
The less all-out visionary but unmistakably apocalyptic tone of the Advent readings in the lectionary is a stark reminder to us that all three of the synoptic gospels (many scholars question whether these words go all the way back to Jesus himself) place an apocalyptic exclamation point on Jesus’ ministry. One way to read this is that the manner of life presented by Jesus—grounded I would argue in a radical praxis of inclusive compassion—unleashes its own world-transforming energy.
It’s an energy we tend to keep boxed up in all manner of ways ranging from “right doctrine” to “personal piety” to “cute Christmas pageantry.” Almost as though we want to ensure it can’t effect world transformation. Mary’s Magnificat (also appointed for the Advent lectionary) is more open in its longing. Trading apocalyptic imagery for straight forward social and political reversal, Mary’s song suggests that somehow in the promised life of Jesus the proud will be scattered, the mighty cast down, the rich left empty, the lowly exalted, and the hungry fed. Taken seriously, her words intimate a gospel nothing less than apocalyptic in impact.
If it’s hard for us to feel radical hope in the face of cataclysmic change, that may have something to do with where we stand in the world today. Years ago, when teaching the story of the Exodus to college students I suggested “we would be wise to feel a bit of fear as we read these passages, in the uncomfortable honesty that we today stand closer to the Egyptians than the Hebrews. In a world where many live like slaves so that a relative few can live like kings, we are among those who wear purple.” The plagues—themselves a mini apocalyptic narrative—upend the worlds of both the Egyptians and the Hebrews, but that upending is good news for those who had been enslaved (although there is no lacking of murmuring among the Hebrews as they wander the wilderness in the coming years).
So where do we stand in the story of climate change? Well, most of us stand in places where the upending of the world as it is, is not good news. But the truth is that for most of the world’s inhabitants—more viscerally acquainted than we are with the costs of our addiction to petroleum, our exploitation of animals and ecosystems, our racist objectification of our fellow humanity, and our unrelenting consumption of the planet—for most of the world’s inhabitants the continuation of the world as it is, is precisely the threat. And the apocalyptic disruption of the status quo might well count as good news.
Unfortunately, because of how interconnected our world is, the level of disruption coming with climate change will take a steep toll on the entire web of creation. And, in many cases, the greatest toll will be exacted on those least responsible and least able to respond.
Nevertheless—and I’m being intentionally provocative here—the Transition Movement dares to suggest that it’s possible to move into the impending upending of the world that is … as a step toward good news. To choose to radically simplify our lives, to break our addictions to both fossil fuel and needless material stuff, to reclaim skills needed to live lightly on Earth, to dramatically localize our lives, and to deepen bonds of genuine community—all such choices, which we can begin to make now, are ways to embrace apocalypse—even as our lives are upended—as bearing good news.
This is not to make light of the damning losses that we have bartered for these past few decades (primarily by way of corporate agendas and political inaction, but also by personal indifference and unexamined habits of greed). The losses, already underway but to be fully revealed in the decades ahead, will be apocalyptic: world-rending. But it is to say that, if this present world—insufferable for so much of creation—is about to be swept away, as it needs to be if there is to be a path forward for the whole of humanity and for the health of creation, then there is in that apocalypse a very severe sort of good news.
And our capacity to make the changes needed in our lives may well hinge on our ability to imagine, within the tumult of apocalypse, a whisper of goods news. Not to domesticate its terror, but to taste the very real joy that can yet be had if we choose—in this Advent moment—to turn away (repent) from lives that trade almost entirely in death to prop up a façade of success that is coming quickly to its end.
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!). Thanks for reading and see you next week!
The Book of Daniel, while fictionally set in sixth century BCE (“Before the Common Era”), was authored in the second century BCE under the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Hellenistic Greek ruler who viciously attacked both Jewish faith and culture. The Book of Revelation was written near the end of the first century CE (“in the Common Era”) under the reign of Emperor Domitian who demanded imperial idolatry from Christians under pain of death. In both contexts the community of the faithful found their faith pushed to the extreme, as though nothing less than the rending of one world and the appearance of another would open a way forward.
The texts (for Years A, B, C) are: Matthew 24: 36-44; Mark 13:24-37; Luke 21:25-36. While Jesus himself was active in a context of significant multifaceted social-political-religious oppression, by the time the synoptic gospels themselves were authored (usually dated 40-60 years later), the stakes seemed even higher. The Jewish Revolt, the Fall of Jerusalem and the early years of Roman persecution of Christians all made the idea of Jesus’ return a powerful source of radical hope.
Luke 1:46-55. It’s noteworthy that Mary’s song of praise is sparkedby the words her cousin Elizabeth uses to greet her by, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” These are fighting words. Really. For Elizabeth and Mary, who surely knew their Jewish heroines, these words were dangerouslyevocative. In oral cultures, phrases matter. Only twice in the Hebrew Scripture were women told, “Blessed are you among women.” You couldn’t hear the words and not have the memory of Jael and Judith come rushing at you. Jael earned them (Judges 5:24) for driving a tent peg through the head of a general who was oppressing the early Israelites. Later Judith received them (Judith 13:18) after beheading a general whose troops had besieged an Israelite town. This phrase heralded women whose cunning and courage proved crucial in toppling oppressive power. As a song in response to that greeting, the Magnificat is no mere wistful verse. It is poetry promising to upend the world.
The imagery in these words came to me in 1996 the first time I taught this story to first-year students at Notre Dame; I’ve used the phrase “the ones who wear purple” to frame our entry into to the Exodus tale ever since.