Jeremiah 33:14–16 | Psalm 25:1–10 | 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13 | Luke 21:25–36
When I was around ten years old, I came to the conclusion that I would not live out a normal life or die a normal death. I grew up in an age of apocalypse, the end of the Cold War, under the shadow of nuclear annihilation and mutually assured destruction. Before we feared rising seas caused by global warming, or a poisoned atmosphere, or a vanishing ozone layer, or extinction by over-population, or the Y2K computer bug, or Al-Qaeda, or ISIS, we feared the Soviet Union. In 1985, on his first solo album after leaving his popular band, the Police, the English musician called Sting sang, accurately:
In Europe and America There’s a growing feeling of hysteria Conditioned to respond to all the threats In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets
Mr. Krushchev said, “We will bury you” I don’t subscribe to this point of view It would be such an ignorant thing to do If the Russians love their children too.
But that’s getting ahead of myself, because in 1985 I was already fifteen. Before that, in 1982, when I was twelve, there was the threat of global disaster caused by a planetary alignment. According to this doomsday scenario, popularised in a book titled The Jupiter Effect, the world would come to an end in 1982 when all the planets in our solar system formed a straight line which would unleash massively destructive gravitational forces. When I was seven or eight, I was gleefully informed about this forthcoming event by my best friend, who seemed to have an inside source of knowledge on such calamities. So I promptly resigned myself to having a life-span of no more than fifteen years, thinking that if I made it to 1985 I’d be lucky.
But perhaps I was set up for such a passive acceptance of my fate by the sort of Christian upbringing I had received. For in addition to the political, environmental, technological, and cosmic catastrophes I’ve just described, I also grew up in an environment of intense religious apocalyptic speculation. A widely read book at the time was Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth, which explained in great detail how all of the final Biblical prophecies were being fulfilled before our very eyes: how the Antichrist and the Beast of Revelation were even now alive and preparing to persecute the Church and establish a One World Government, how Christians would be instantly teleported (or “raptured”) to Heaven before a great and terrible Tribulation, how the final battle of Armageddon was upon us, and how Christ would soon descend in dreadful majesty to judge both the quick and the dead. All of these themes have now been developed by the immensely popular Left Behind series of books and films, which have been avidly read, seen, and believed by millions and millions of people. And for some, these eschatological beliefs constitute Christianity—believing this, in their view, is what it means to be a Christian.
So when I was around ten years old, I came to the conclusion that I would not live out a normal life or die a normal death. Either the Soviets, or the Jupiter Effect, or the Antichrist, or the Rapture would bring it about that I would never reach adulthood or die of old age. Instead, I would be vaporised by an atomic bomb, or crushed in a worldwide cataclysm, or heroically martyred to avoid the Mark of the Beast, or caught up in rapture to meet the Lord in the air. And, again, I figured that if I made it to fifteen I’d be lucky.
Now, of course this is all very fascinating, but why exactly am I telling you about it? Well, because today is Advent Sunday, and Advent Sunday holds together two different, contradictory, and yet essential elements in the Christian tradition. The first element is the apocalyptic impulse I’ve been describing so far. Advent is a season with a dual aspect: it looks back to the first coming of Christ, which culminates at Christmas; and yet it also looks forward in anticipation to the second coming of Christ. The second coming, or return, of Christ, is indeed very clearly taught in the New Testament. As Jesus says in our reading from Luke, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” And we also affirm this belief as a point of orthodox doctrine every time we recite the Nicene Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
So this apocalyptic impulse is one element of Advent Sunday, and perhaps the dominant element. But there’s also a second element, an implicit element, a somewhat contradictory or awkward element. It’s the element which those who have grown up in churches that observe the Christian calendar may not even notice, but it’s this. The First Sunday of Advent is the first Sunday of the first season of the Christian year. After Advent comes Christmas, then Epiphany, then Lent and Holy Week, then Easter, then Pentecost, then a long period of so-called ‘Ordinary Time,’ and then back to Advent again. It’s a cycle of feasts and fasts, a cycle which celebrates the life of Christ and the central mysteries of the Christian faith.
It is this cyclical nature of the Christian year—a year which begins today—which is the implicit, somewhat contradictory and awkward element to Advent Sunday. To understand this, you must know that different religions and philosophies have different views of time. An ancient and venerable and pagan view says that time itself is cyclical. Time goes nowhere, it has no destination or goal or end. Time is a continuous cycle which eternally repeats itself.
This, however, is not the Christian view of time. The Christian view of time is not cyclical but linear. In the Christian view, time has a beginning, a middle, and possibly an end. Whether or not time has an end, it is going somewhere—it has a purpose, a destination, determined by God. God is the creator of time and the author of the story which occurs within time—what we call history. God has a purpose, a plan for time, and (as the well-known hymn puts it):
God is working His purpose out As year succeeds to year; God is working his purpose out, And the time is drawing near; Nearer and nearer draws the time, The time that shall surely be, When the earth shall be filled With the glory of God As the waters cover the sea.
But, here’s the problem. Since the Christian view of time is linear, isn’t it contradictory, awkward, or at least paradoxical to express this linear view of time through a cyclical calendar, a calendar largely inspired by the pagan view of time Christianity rejected, and largely incorporating pagan festivals likewise rejected? Isn’t this why many Protestant Christians abandoned the whole idea of a cyclical Christian calendar at the Reformation, and chose rather to simply live solely within the apocalyptic linear trajectory of time? And so, therefore, isn’t Advent Sunday, which tries to convey the apocalypse while commencing the cycle, just one big fat pagan incoherence?
Well, maybe. I can’t go into the whole issue here, but let me now bring the discussion back to the personal level on which I began. As someone who grew up expecting the imminent end of the world, and as someone who still believes that Christ will indeed “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” I nevertheless totally embraced the idea of a cyclical calendar of the Christian year when I finally left my non-denominational house church for mainstream liturgical Christianity. While I admit that, yes, a cyclical ritual enactment of a linear view of time is somewhat paradoxical, I find it of enormous practical value. It gives me a way to live with the linear, apocalyptic nature of Christian time without being overwhelmed by it.
To be perfectly honest, I was tired, worn out with waiting for the world to end. If that’s all you are doing with your life—whether for religious or for any other reason—then it’s very easy to get cynical, bored, and jaded. For example, in 1987, when I was seventeen—which, you may recall, was two years after I thought the world would end—the Southern band R.E.M. released their superficially upbeat—but I think ultimately cynical and nihilistic—song, “It’s The End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” The chorus simply says:
It’s the end of the world as we know it; It’s the end of the world as we know it; It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).
Well, that’s a great song, but I submit to you that it is still really an expression of despair. But, instead of despair, the Christian tradition counsels patience. And I think patience is precisely what the cycle of the Christian year is supposed to teach us. Yes, time is going somewhere, but it’s taking its time. Yes, we believe Jesus is coming back, but he hasn’t come back yet. Yes, we are called to be prepared, but that doesn’t mean obsessing about the end of the world: there are lots of other things—indeed, far more important things—we are supposed to focus on: like, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. Like, respect the dignity of every human being. Like, love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love our neighbours as ourselves. Thus, the cycle of the Christian year is not a true cycle after all, but rather a spiral. It is taking us somewhere—forward, or higher, or deeper—but in a roundabout, slow, patient fashion.
God is working God’s purpose out As year succeeds to year; God is working God’s purpose out, And the time is drawing near; Nearer and nearer draws the time, The time that shall surely be, When the earth shall be filled With the glory of God As the waters cover the sea.