In the Christian calendar this time of year is commonly called “Advent,” and the scripture readings in most of the major churches pertain to the so-called “Second Coming.” In a peculiar way the Church prepares for the celebration of the Mystery of the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh(sarx in Greek–important as we shall see later), by meditating on a mysterious promised second coming at something called “the end of time.” In our secular society, of course, this time of year is only a shopping season for Christmas–and here Christmas is mostly a “feel-good” time marked out by a bizarre collection of symbols that no longer are hinged to anything religious: snowflakes, candles, wreaths, eggnog, Santa Claus, reindeer, even secular angels announcing the good news of lower prices(can angels lie?), etc. This time of year is very important to the business world, and so these symbols can be found everywhere.
If you are a Christian, please do not say, “Oh yeah, I understand: God comes to us in Jesus, and then there is the Second Coming at the end of the world.” Trust me, you do not understand. No one does. These are great mysteries, and they should not be treated as if understood–but because of the repetition of the feast and its secularization and commercialization the whole Christmas season is a kind of pseudo-religious cultural cliché.
Here we will focus on the so-called Second Coming and what Christian theology calls “eschatology.” The scripture readings point to an endtime scenario of cosmic proportions. Read literally, as the fundamentalists do, this leads to some unfortunate conclusions–among which the mass of humanity is condemned to an eternity in hell for various reasons, and only an elite few are saved(in some readings 144,000). Here we can use two science fiction movies as illustrations. The first one is Close Encounters of the Third Kind. For too many Christians the Second Coming of Christ is like a Super Alien coming to an elite, select few. It signals its coming in various ways; then it comes and takes the select few with it; and the others, well…… Of course this caricature is preceded by another caricature that has to do with the first coming or the Mystery of the Incarnation where, in the terms of Christian theology, God is fully and uniquely present in Jesus Christ. That caricature we may draw from another movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. For too many Christians the Mystery of the Incarnation is reduced to a kind of body-snatching on the part of God. You know that there is this Jew, Jesus, who looks like us, seems like us, but if you look closely at his eyes, you will see something different, something strange–ah, he is not one of us afterall. It is body-snatcher christology. The similarity between these two caricatures is that it reduces God to the Ultimate Outsider, the Super Alien.
Now there are different valid theological interpretations of the so-called second coming. We won’t get into that, but let us explore one important aspect of the meaning of these scriptures that refer to the Second Coming. Here we will draw on Shakespeare for some help. Recall his play Macbeth and the soliloquy by the main character, Macbeth:
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
………………………Out, out brief candle
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Someone once said that Macbeth is the first atheist existentialist. Not sure about that, but he does articulate a view that is more common than one might realize: the ultimate meaninglessness of life. Strip away the veneer of a facile optimism, the veneer of a surface social life where one runs around consuming and “having fun” in a prolonged sequence of moments; strip away the veneer of those “little projects” and goals in life, and one big question lurks underneath: what’s the point of it all? what is the meaning of all my activity? what is the meaning of life? As long ago as Pascal and even long before that, many wise voices have pointed out that so much of human activity, especially modern frenetic activity(Thoreau’s “most men live lives of quiet desperation”–not so quiet anymore) is actually a diversion from facing head on the question of the meaning of our life. Even religion can become merely a prop to ward off the sense of meaninglessness. As one British author caricatured the naturalistic novel as ODTAA–one damned thing after another–so is the flow of history. History, both personal and our collective human history, seems no more than a surface procession of events and happenings with no point to it. Now different religious traditions have different ways of dealing with this question, but here we are concerned primarily with the Christian tradition, and here there is an “appeal to God” to render life meaningful. Very often this is a superficial maneuver when God is brought in as an explanation when one has run out of one’s own resources to deal with the situation. God becomes a kind of conventional answer with certain emotional reassurances. But a “cheap appeal to God” will not endure the next challenge.
So there is another “threat of meaninglessness” that challenges any and every easy “appeal to God.” Here let us bring in Dostoevsky and his novel Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky has one of his characters, Ivan, relate a story of how an innocent child was torn to shreds by dogs that a rich baron set upon the child for a trivial reason. Ivan throws out a challenge to his monk brother, Alyosha: how can this happen in a world created by God? what is the possible meaning of claiming there is a good and loving God? Ivan doesn’t even contest or argue with Alyosha about his faith–he simply “turns in his ticket to this universe.” He calls this universe ultimately absurd and meaningless if such things are possible, and so he implicates the God that Alyosha believes in, the God who has created this universe. In a sense Dostoevsky has anticipated the questions raised by the events of the Holocaust and all the genocides through the centuries. The postmodern thought world, where everything, even religion, has become a commodity to make you feel good, and we are all happy consumers, the postmodern verdict on all this suffering would be: “In the grand scheme of the universe your suffering is utterly meaningless–life and all that comes with it has no transcendent meaning or value.” Of course it is never put so directly or so openly–more like it would be: “Shit happens”; “Bummer.”
It is interesting and important that Alyosha does not answer Ivan or argue with him. We cannot answer the hard questions that someone who is a bearer of such suffering presents to us. Certainly not by a cheap appeal to God, as if we had a grasp of what we are really claiming to know. Again, the different religious traditions have different ways of dealing with this situation, but suffice it to say that we can DO the following 3 things:
- We can try to prevent victimization as much as it is possible within our power even at great cost to ourselves and our own security.
- We can stand WITH the victim in his/her suffering–not as some outsider who brings in the notion of God more to reassure ourselves that everything is really ok.
- We can abide in faith.
This last thing needs some explanation, and here we return to our reflection on Advent and Christian Eschatology. This is the point of all those varied “end of time” scripture readings. They are meant to empower us in a symbolic way to abide in faith in the most “un-faith-filled” situations in the course of history. Now let us consider this line of poetry:
for thirty pieces of silver he sold him
This is actually not the full line–we left off the last syllable–here is the full line:
for thirty pieces of silver he sold himself.
In the first quote we had left off the last syllable, “self.” With the addition of that last syllable the whole sentence is transformed from a brute fact of history into a revelation of an inner meaning of that fact. But it is only when you get to that last syllable that you understand. This is an interesting illustration of the situation. So history is experienced as this flow of “one syllable” after another, offering us one naked fact after another, but what Christian eschatology claims is that 1.) there is a “last syllable” that transforms the meaning of it all; and 2.) that this “last syllable” is both “at the end of time” and within our hearts already. This is due to the fact that when the Divine Logos became flesh, in the traditional translation, it entered history, that which human beings create–and the second coming will be a kind of completion and fulfillment of what began in the Incarnation. The Greek word is sarx–the Word became sarx–that is the flux and flow of human existence, the transience and impermanence of the human reality, in Buddhist terms, samsara. The “last syllable” of history is now both within history already and “at the end” of history. The scripture readings, then, point in two directions: first, that there is a great(indeed, a cosmic) significance to history–history is not just “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”– and the collective history of the human family is significant and not just our own personal holiness or realization and that we as community and as human family share in the unfolding of this meaning, and so the suffering of every man, woman and child, no matter how obscure, is now not lost in the sequence of events but connected to that “last syllable” and therefore part of that which will render history meaningful; and secondly that there is a great significance even to the smallest human activity within history–nothing is “not meaningful”–even offering a drink to a thirsty stranger is now of great significance and meaning because “you did it to Me.” These eschatological scripture readings, then, empower us, in a symbolic way, to abide in faith. Even in the darkest situation, even in the most incomprehensible events, even when all resources for meaning are helpless, we abide in the mystery of faith, not with cheap solutions, but within the silence of our hearts where we sense the presence of that “last syllable,” and beyond the horizon of our history where we look for the manifestation of that “last syllable.” We abide in the faith that leads to boundless love and transcendent meaning.