|Salvador Dali -- Horsemen of the Apocalypse|
"The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory". Mark’s Gospel for this first Sunday in Advent is undeniably apocalyptic, a feature that makes it problematic for those main-stream Christians who have difficulty in believing in an apocalypse. They are understandably anxious to distance themselves from lurid conceptions of ‘the Rapture’, or some such religious extreme. Warnings that 'the end of the world is nigh' are widely regarded as characteristic of Christianity's lunatic fringe.
Yet, this Gospel passage can hardly be set aside. It is not the wild prediction of some eccentric Nostradamus. These are words of Jesus as recorded in the Christian Bible, and expressly appointed, in a Lectionary that the larger part of the Christian world now acknowledges and uses, to be read in public on this Sunday. So how are we to understand them?
|Angel of Revelation -- William Blake|
It is perhaps best to start with this thought. Any attempt to think about time and eternity simply has to invoke imaginative rather than literal language. That is because we cannot think about the limits of history in historical terms. So, for instance, the Genesis stories are graphic representations of the great truth that God created time and space, a cosmic beginning to all things whose mysterious nature science is just dimly starting to understand. It is not so strange, then, to think that God will also bring this great cosmic experiment to a close with the end of all things. If so, however, we must think about it pictures that are no less graphic.
Contrary to the opinion of some admirers as well as detractors, the Bible is not a scientific text. It is a collection -- books of history, prophecy, poetry, story. Taken together they offer us something that even the most impressive scientific investigation cannot -- religious and theological insights into human nature and the human condition, insights by which we can live. We are clay, and God is the potter, Isaiah reminds us in another compelling image. This means that both the number of our own days, and of the whole cosmos is determined in God’s good time, not in ours. Prediction is pointless, since no one – not even God the Son, today's Gospel tells us -- can put a date to its end. What is called for, therefore, is perpetual watchfulness. This is one half of the message of Advent. The other half tells us that even the end of history can be regarded with hope rather than fear. This is the message of St Paul in the Epistle. Since the grace of God has already been given to us in Christ Jesus, we need not lack in any spiritual gift in advance of his final return.