Advent Against Apocalypse

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I remain confident of this:
I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.

Psalm 27:13 (NIV)

Happy new year! The season of Advent is upon us, which begins the liturgical year. We light our candles, sing our hymns of preparation, and begin our Advent calendars. We decorate our homes, gather together, and make our favorite treats. We yearn, deeply, for it to be Christmas, to capture the magic of Christmas and pass it on to the next generation. 

And yet the season of Advent does not quite match the Christmas side of the holiday season. The readings for Advent are strongly apocalyptic. “Repent!” screams Advent. “The day of the Lord is at hand! Make a straight path for the way of the Lord!” Since we are never sure we know how to repent, we practice by fasting and restricting ourselves. 

But why should Advent be associated with apocalypse? After all, it is a season where we prepare to celebrate the incarnation of God as Christ—is that not the opposite of the end of the world?

I confess that the past couple of years have, at many times, felt like an apocalypse. And I think most of us are beyond tired and beyond ready to see the end of the apocalypse we have been living through. We are beyond tired of hearing stories of loved ones saying their last goodbyes through a video screen. We are beyond tired of hearing stories of families broken apart, by disease, by the pressures of work, by the trials of migration. We are beyond tired of paying taxes into a system that wields death as a weapon of racism. We are beyond tired of being trapped in a system where boycotting products that harm the ecosystem would simply and literally mean our death.

Scripture tells us, though, that this is not unique to us. People around Jesus thought that his coming meant that everything would soon collapse. Though they did not live to see that collapse, they were right: first Jerusalem was sacked, and then all of Rome fell. But that was not the end of time and it was not the turning point of God’s story in the world. Rather, it was Jesus himself who was that turning point, and not in his death but in his birth and his life. God was not content to stay in heaven, on the other side of death, waiting for us to get it right. God was so desperate to be near us, and for us to know that God was near, that Christ became Jesus, first in the body of Mary. God did not wait for everything to collapse before God reconciled everything to Godself. Even in the midst of ordinary people living through ordinary turmoil, God chose to be part of our lives.

I have sometimes heard that the reason apocalyptic films are so important in our culture is that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” The fact that, even in scriptural times, people sensed that society was fragile and on the verge of great change and even collapse, makes me suspect that apocalyptic imagination is part of the human condition. We seem to feel a collective uneasiness about the fragility of society. And we are right to do so—society really is fragile. Even with our advanced technology, our society is still being undone by distrust, selfishness, and the last-minute nature of resource distribution in today’s capitalistic landscape. 

From ancient times, people have imagined that the time of collapse that they lived through would give way to greater collapse. The Book of Daniel attests to this thread in the imaginations of the faithful, and it runs through scripture, into the Book of Revelation. John the Baptist was often taken to have had an apocalyptic message, and the Apostle Paul was said to have spent at least half of his life believing that he would live to see Jesus return from the place to which he ascended. This apocalyptic thread has continued through the ages, and still there are people who calculate the date and the time of the apocalypse.

But if we were to believe everything needed to collapse before we could see the fullness of God, we would be liars in confessing that Jesus Christ was fully God. Because Jesus was not born in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with zombies roaming the Earth. Jesus was not born in a time of total destruction of everything. He was born in a little backwater of Rome, in circumstances of nearly comical poverty, and he continued to live. He was raised by parents who loved him, in a community that knew him. Jesus’s birth was not the beginning of a total unraveling of society. God does not have to wait for an apocalypse to be fully present in our world. And through the grace of the Holy Spirit, God is present in our world even now, just as fully as when Jesus walked on Earth.

We come to Advent with a question we learned to ask from John the Baptist: how can we make a straight path for the Lord? And because we are only human, we struggle to imagine how to change all the things that are wrong in this world, unless there is a total collapse of every sinful system and we get a chance to start over from scratch. We ask, Lord, tell us the signs of the apocalypse. Show us what we must dispose of to fully embrace the apocalypse, to fully prepare ourselves for all the collapse we will live through, so that in the space that remains we can see you clearly.

But instead of answering our prayers with destruction and death, Jesus answers our prayers with birth. We ask, “When will we be done with all this pain and finally be safe enough to hope?” Instead of answering that, Jesus answers why it will be worth it to endure the ravages of this sad old world.

It’s all going to be worth it because we will see God at work in our world. It’s all going to be worth it because we will learn how to love more deeply, more fully, less selfishly. It’s all going to be worth it, because we will see things so beautiful that we had no way to even imagine them. Perhaps all of us and everything we have built will pass away. But the goodness with which God created the world will not pass away. Maybe we will die the old-fashioned way, or maybe I am wrong and we will truly live to see a great unveiling, where the heavens will be opened and all souls will depart from this earth. But it will still have been worth it to follow Jesus through our little lives. Because there will be such great joy, here and now, that when all illusions are stripped away, and we meet God face-to-face, we will already be familiar with God’s great glory, because of the great joy we saw in this life. All of this is already true, because God chose to come to us as Jesus.

The day is coming when The Lord is going to make all things new. If we live through a time when God is showing us what needs to change so that the world can be more like the kingdom Jesus proclaimed, that’s a gift of greater closeness with God. But change does not have to be death, because God does not just stay in heaven, and neither does our hope. God is not content to simply wait for us beyond death, safe in the future where we don’t have to think about it. God does not wait patiently on the other side of apocalypse, but rushes headlong into the world, vulnerable like a baby, navigating individual relationships with us like a child. 

The greatest gift is this. God was so desperate to be one with us, to show us that our lives were meant to be full of hope and joy, that God became Jesus Christ and taught us how to live as if God was present always. Because God is present, always. The telos of our lives is not death, and the telos of the world is not apocalypse, with God on the other side. The telos of our lives is toward God, here in the land of the living; we know this because God became Jesus. And the incarnation of Christ doesn’t live in the past but is ongoing, every day, every hour, every moment. Even here, even now. God lives and moves and works among us, here and now, in our bodies and in our reality. Every bit of this life is Spirit-drenched.

In a time of waiting, in a season such as this, it can feel like we don’t know what we are waiting for, and that the best we can hope for is that on the other side of all this misery, God is waiting. But that is not the best we can hope for, because we serve a God who came to us incarnate. Though we may struggle to imagine a reality in which goodness comes to us without collapse, God promises us that we will see God’s work on this side of death. We serve a God who shared our humanity, so desperate God was for us to know and understand, and sense that God was with us. 

If we do not have to wait for an apocalypse, then why a season of waiting? Because we need to learn to imagine that God’s promises are true. We are only human, so we are easily persuaded to imagine the end of the world, rather than simply the end of oppression. God invites us to spend a time training our senses. The season of Advent is a gift that lets us practice imagining that we will see God’s hope, God’s peace, God’s joy, God’s love, here in the land of the living. 

God is not waiting for the apocalypse to begin working in the world. God’s justice, God’s peace, God’s love is already being born here in the world. In the season of Advent, we are invited to learn to look for it. 

Cat Clyburn

Cat is a student at Duke Divinity School, working on an MDiv with a concentration in Food and Faith. They are from rural North Carolina and have an abiding passion for growing a connection to land, as a way to anchor an understanding of racial justice as we work towards reckoning with history.

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