First Sunday of Advent
The story of the end, of the last word
of the end, when told, is a story that never ends.
From Mark Strand’s “The Seven Last Words”
Christianity makes the brazen claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the end of history, and the double-entendre is deliberate.
On the one hand, the consummation that Christ’s resurrection makes possible cannot be an event in history, enclosed by history, any more than creation can be an event enfolded in time. On the other hand, the life, death, and resurrection of this first-century crucified Jew is the telos, the goal, the realized hope of all human (and non-human) existence. Jesus of Nazareth is history’s end.
In other words, the crucified and risen Christ not only completes history but ruptures it. Precisely in and through the historical contingencies of first-century Palestine—this specific set of laws and customs, that particular Roman procurator—the future, God’s good future, begins. In a backwater province of Empire, the truth of the triune God breaks history open not through political coercion or insurrection but with a revolution of forgiving, reconciling love. As John Howard Yoder put it:
The point that apocalyptic makes is not only that people who wear crowns and who claim to foster justice by the sword are not as strong as they think—true as that is . . . It is that people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe.
Another way of saying this: In Jesus the kingdom of God has come near. It is in our very midst, in fact. This doesn’t mean that the resurrection has ushered in a new era of social progress (as many liberal Christians would have it) or that (as some conservatives insist) only the doctrinally pure will be welcomed by a militant Messiah returning to earth in a blaze of glory. No—in Jesus, history has been redeemed, the saeculum reclaimed as the arena of God’s ongoing activity in the world, and the forces of violence, despair, and death undone. The “end times” began two millenia ago. We’re still in them.
It is in the season of Advent that the Church most fully reckons with the apocalyptic, eschatological dimension of Christian teaching and discipleship. Yet this can seem a nonsensical claim in churches where Advent often resembles the cultural countdown to Christmas, with shades of purple scattered about to give our worship a sober tinge.
Advent marks the intersection of the already and the not yet. We live between two ages—time fallen and time redeemed—but there is no spatial dimension which is not infused with God’s presence and power (and thus God’s beauty). Advent names this tension and helps us to anticipate, indeed to practice, the time when, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “the fire and the rose are one.”
The appointed scriptural texts for the season speak to this, especially the ravings of John the Baptizer and this week’s summons to watchfulness and readiness (“Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming”).
And yet a domesticated, accommodated Christianity can hardly bear any of this. Just give us angels and shepherds and cradles already, please.
In eschatological time “the end is where we start from.” The cross makes the creche intelligble. Advent is when and where the end of history is seen for what it is: the good news of God that wounds even as it heals. Terror and beauty, judgment and hope, sorrow and joy—these realities of our everyday lives reveal the paradox at the heart of life this side of the eschaton. They are the Advent way.