Sunday, November 29, 2009

An apocalyptic Advent

Today is the first day of Advent 2009. In the wake of the end of the Gathering, I've spent over a year without a liturgical calendar, without the flow and rhythm that characterized my religious life for seven years. As Advent approached this year, I saw it as an opportunity to begin my own liturgical practice again. At the Gathering, we called Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany "Incarnation Season". For Incarnation Seasons past, I read through Walter Wangerin's excellent Preparing for Jesus: Meditations on the coming of Christ, Advent, Christmas, and the Kingdom, and more recently Phylis Tickles' Christmastide: Prayers for Advent through Epiphany from The Divine Hours. both as devotional texts. I find the majority of Christmas devotions to be sentimental in the worst way possible, treating the holiday season with a sentimental reverence akin to Ricky Bobby's "baby Jesus" prayer in Talladega Nights.

But this year, neither Wangerin or Tickle seemed quite right. As I put up our tree last night (yes, I know, many of you don't put your Christmas tree up until Christmas - we put ours up after Gunnar's birthday on November 25, like Americans who do it after Thanksgiving but before the first week of December), I was listening to The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, a book I am teaching next semester. As a spiritually minded man in his early 20s who was often little earthly good, I had largely ignored the events in Sarajevo for theological musings. My ignorance of that conflict forced me to google the siege of Sarajevo as context for my reading. What many of you likely already knew was fresh news to me. I found myself thinking about Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24", a Metallica-esque take on "Carol of the Bells", in an entirely new light.

Add to this the prominence of articles in the news on the end of the world, inspired by the release of the film version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road this weekend. Compound that with my contextualizing of the apocalyptic tension of the Cold War to my students as we study James Cameron's The Abyss; an episode of Boston Legal I'll be teaching to my Analysis and Argument students this week where Nantucket requests the right to build an atomic bomb, not because they really want one, but because no one talks about nuclear threat any more; the relentless dystopia of Battlestar Galactica Season Four; the Edmonton Journal's report on the potential genocide of the world's bat populations, which echoed the H1N1 scare, and got me thinking about the bleak future of Paolo Bacigalupi's calorie-starved world in The Windup Girl. I needed a different meditation for Advent, for Incarnation this year.

Traditionally, Advent is to meditate upon the coming of Christ, either the Nativity of the past, or the Parousia of the future. I chose to go with the latter this year. So this morning over breakfast, I read the preface to Harry O. Maier's Apocalypse Recalled: The Book of Revelation after Christendom. I really enjoyed reading the first chapters of this book, which I picked up at the King's University College bookstore the year before I worked there. I have found I can always count on the King's bookstore for theology that provides me with an edge to grow against. I've never finished the book, but I intend to use it daily this Incarnation season, to temper the apocalyptic tone of my world at the end of 2009.

Maier's basic contention is that Revelation should not be read as "a book to map out an ending to history" (with which I agree completely as a preterist-symbolist), nor only as a "means to comfort churches suffering religious persecution under the Roman Empire" (which is a divergence from the more traditional reading of John's apocalypse), but as a call for Christians to incarnate a "world-ending discipleship." What Maier means by this is more Blood Diamond than it is 2012:

"That is to say, the book [of Revelation] urges Christians to live out an ending to greed and selfishness and to discover a new vision of civic identity centered in the religious particularity of the Christian story, one that interrupts and renounces the forms of violence, greed, and despair that lessen us as human beings...In that sense the book urges an eschatological commitment - a commitment to living endings." (xi, italics mine)

In a terribly complex global community, in a world where the future doesn't look so bright, Christians must do more than just promise that God will someday come to tidy up, or potentially just reduce, reuse, and recycle this broken Creation. We must act in the present to bring the Kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. Not as a merging of church and state, but in a "counterimperial identity in faithfulness to Jesus Christ." I hesitate even here, knowing how badly such words can be interepreted. I am not advocating for the sign wavers and the political dissidents, for those who lobby for gun-rights and rail against Obama's new health care imperatives. I am advocating for a Christianity that reflects critically "on Christian discipleship in the face of forms of imperial domination, whether they be those of Pax Romana, or of the Pax Americana". And even as I say that, I must remind myself of the freedom I have to publish these words without fear or reprisal. I am not anti-American, or anti-democracy: I am pro-incarnating. Incarnating Jesus into the current society. Tony Campolo has suggested that the ruling society of the day is always Babylon, always in need of critique and careful consideration.

At the very least, I am definitely railing against only comfortably contemplating the Christ child in a sentimental, romanticized fashion, or anticipating the apocalypse with a rabid fervor that echoes the cultic madmen of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. In Maier's words, "an otherworldly reading of John's Apocalypse is a fundamental misreading of Revelation."

"Preoccupied with a call to faithful witness, Revelation offers a portrait of this-worldly discipleship and Christian commitment. If it leaves the future to God, it invites consideration of a present filled with the sounds of faithful testimony to its counterimperial hero, Jesus." (xiii)

If the second advent is a message of hope and not hellfire, one that isn't waiting for the end of time, but the beginning of the Kingdom, then I think more people would echo my prayer today from Revelation 22: Even so, come Lord Jesus.


  1. Anonymous6:00 PM

    Sounds like we've been moving in some similar theological directions!

    Thanks for a needed reflection this Advent season.

  2. Thanks Mike. That was a refreshing reflection.