In this post-Christian age, for many of us the season of Advent usually kicks off with a Santa parade and everlasting soporific shopping mall music such as Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and Snoopy’s Christmas to encourage the Christmas shoppers at the town centre.
This is no surprise but if we are not careful, the gospel (Luke 21: 25-27) for the first Sunday in Advent, catches us unawares when it speaks of 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. But note this very carefully Then, says Jesus (21:32) Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
For his listeners, Jesus makes no attempt to downplay the coming disasters in his prophecy. He may have been speaking figuratively but if the powers of heaven were not literally shaken, as far as the occupants of Jerusalem were concerned the mayhem that befell them when the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the temple must certainly have seemed that way.
N.T.Wright in his thesis on the topic suggests that Jesus was focusing not so much on the end of the world as on the chaos of the impending Roman assault on Jerusalem. Nevertheless the detail in his prophecy was lurid enough. I guess if you were living in Gaza or Syria right now, you would say that disasters like this are continuing to happen; and unfortunately there are few signs that the people of the world are capable of learning from past mistakes. The current confrontations occurring in the Middle East and in Africa in particular remind us that religion doesn’t always make people kinder and more forgiving.
For Luke’s contemporary readers, the mounting despair would have been real enough. Others since have been certain that Jesus was talking of Armageddon, but end-times predictions may miss the point. While it is traditional Western thinking to talk in terms of a time line with a beginning, a middle and an end, the recurring themes of the Bible suggest that encounters with the eternal are not dependent on the lineal measurement of time. After all, if it is only to Luke’s generation that Jesus’ words have meaning, what possible relevance would they then have for us today?
At the end of his parable about the fig tree (Luke 21: 29-32) Jesus gives a clue when he says “heaven and Earth may disappear, but my words shall remain forever”. The Advent or coming of which he spoke may not so much be a personal meeting with the saviour as a personal revelation about the essence of what he represented.
Why then did the lectionary scholars choose this particular reading to introduce Advent? Although I cannot be sure, I can see how Jesus’ insistence that he will come in the midst of swirling dark chaos may remind us of the notion of unexpected birth. Yet the birth, if it is to have meaning today, must be more than a story in a book.
The 14th-century German mystic Meister Eckhart conjured a striking image when he wrote: What is the good if Mary gave birth to the Son of God all those years ago, if I do not give birth to God today? We are all Mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.
This suggests a different way of looking at Advent. What if the birth we expect needs to be embedded in our very essence before Jesus can be said to have come to make a difference?
It is not so much that we as members of the Church can claim to be unaware of the teaching of the Christ who was to come and who now has come, because for some of us we have heard the familiar stories from childhood. Yet, until we take this teaching to be a part of our very being, Christ has not arrived for us. Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his essay God Only Has Us (from his book God has a Dream) put it rather more directly: What is interesting is how many times the prophets say that if your religion does not affect the way you live your life, it is a religion that God rejects.
Advent then certainly heralds the birth of Christ at Christmas. But if we are thoughtful it may do more than that for us. Jesus may have come as a child, but he also came as a child who grew to become associated with a message. He was never intended to remain in the nativity crib. As he is recorded as saying, his words are those that “remain forever”. But words require a listener before they take shape in a life. Before our time he came for other listeners. For some this gave meaning to their lives… but only, I suspect, for some. This Advent will we see him as coming to us?
This leaves us an interesting question. If the sword is about to lay waste – and if the survivors are to be imprisoned or scattered as refugees, in what sense will the Son of Man come for them? And for us almost two thousand years later, in what sense will the Christ come for us? For that, after all, is the real question of Advent.