Last days, end time, the parousia, the apocalypse. The best of these might be parousia, because there are days of news cycles when “Christ will come again,” wants to be “O, Come Emmanuel, and now.” We have to remember that all the many warnings by the Jewish prophets, in the Gospels and Epistles, and more so in Revelation have to do with some historical incident. The Jewish state fell to Babylon, the Second Temple was destroyed by Rome, and Rome fell to the northern tribes. Unthinkable things. We are tougher, nowadays, or are we? The hits keep coming, and now it is Advent, a time of quiet and reflection, awaiting the Incarnation, our help, our redemption. But not yet.
There have been years when I was all into Christmas, the magic of Dickens’ invention of that old fashioned Christmas, and working at the San Francisco Great Dickens Christmas Faire, all gussied up in corset and hoops and bonnet and all. And it was great. Of course, I had small children, and I felt not one tinge of guilt in wallowing in the abundance. I was surrounded by joy and good cheer and traditional food and toys made about of real stuff, like wood, and some of these have lasted all these decades and I still use them to decorate for Christmas. How could I worry about doom and gloom after saying “Happy Christmas” to thousands of our guests, and meaning it. And here we are, with Eucharistic lection and Daily Office lections hammering us with predictions of the end times, and describing the wages of sin in detail. Knowing that they are referring to Babylon, Jerusalem, and Rome doesn’t seem to help much. I have listened to and read parts or all of Luke 21:20-36 three times in the past two weeks, once today (Lk 21:20-28). It has been coupled with passages from Revelation and Jewish prophets, none of which are intended to fill us with the cheer of Christmastide and the promise of a roast goose and plum pudding. What is the Holy One telling us?
We plunge in with Isaiah 5:8-12,18-23. Go ahead and buy more land, indulge in drink and revelry. Let’s see what you get. Go ahead and hasten the Lord God’s plan. Sarcasm isn’t new. Those newly bought fields won’t yield. The excessive revelry won’t save. Only love of God, embodied in living out his Law, a law of love, kindness to stranger, succor to the suffering, providing for the poor and hungry, will do any good at all. So much for roast goose and Christmas pudding ahead of its time.
Today’s Gospel, with the quixotic name “The Desolating Sacrilege,” appears in all three synoptic Gospels, as does the section named “The Parousia of the Son of Man.” Matthew and Mark expand on the terrors of the Roman destruction of the Temple, with instructions eerily similar to the instructions given to householders in the recent California fires, who were ordered to evacuate in seconds. Don’t go back for anything. Run. Those two Gospels immediately go on to a warning about following false Christs who will emerge and take advantage of the panic which would ensue. Luke skips this, although he has briefly warned of it in Luke 21:8. What sets the Lukan reading apart is verse 28, “Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Matthew and Mark tell of the cloud and the vision of the Son of Man, but only Luke addresses the needs of the disciples. Look up, stand, reach out, trust in your Redeemer. Your Redeemer is near, then and now. And the troubles of these times are no less draconian than those of 70 CE. Perhaps not as single focused, although the events of Sept. 11, 2001 come close, for is not world trade as close as the modern world comes to the Second Temple.
The terrors won’t end. I can promise you that. And with a 24/7 news cycle, we know far more than we can take at times. How much can we let in and stay sane, or keep out and stay human? Starvation in Yemen, and deprivation of water to Palestine as political tools. Support of dictators because we need them, and for what, for profit. Mass shootings, not just because mentally unstable people must be kept from weapons. How unstable were they before we used 20/20 hindsight to explain their behavior and exonerate ourselves of our responsibility? And refugees on the move, an army of loss and poverty. And in response we hate all those who don’t see the remedy as we do. And we flip our compassion and mercy into blame and shame. And in doing so, we lose sight of our Redeemer. Yes, social media is indeed a tool of Satan. Not when we can send happy greetings and pictures to family and friends far from us. But certainly when every word or post is an opportunity to become enraged, and the flames roar with the destructive intensity of those California fires.
And good Christians, even liberal Christians, are far from immune. What happened to forgiveness, love of neighbor, for are we all not sinners? If we weren’t, why did God, Creator and Father, send us Jesus to try to straighten us out? And he did, and when we look up, raise our heads, and reach for our Redeemer, we know that to be true. Only then we can remember to forgive and not judge those who see things differently. Take Jesus’ words seriously. Love one another. If the Kingdom of God were here now, as we pray for every day (I hope) in the Lord’s Prayer, we would not hate. But it isn’t and the perousia has not come, or perhaps it has but we only see it as a shadow, a reflection, a stirring in our hearts when we love our very unlovable neighbor as ourselves. We are building the Kingdom stone by stone, stones of our living flesh and hearts. And in the joy we take in a Christian community trying to live out the Resurrection. But it is hard and we are flawed.
And that is what this teaching has to do with Advent. We wait for the Redeemer, God who took flesh to live and die with use, to know us as one of us, and love us for all our faults. And when the going gets tough, and it will, we reach out for our Redeemer, because he is coming. The best part of Advent (and Lent) is being reminded of what a world without the Christ feels like. It is pretty empty. So perhaps it would be a good discipline to put aside as much of the secular Christmas glamour as our children will allow. And be quiet and listen, look up in hope and reach out in faith. And learn to forgive. And to love. And give thanks for all of us sinners who have been redeemed by the Holy Child as we await his birth,
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.