December 2, 2018 (Advent I)
Holy Wisdom Monastery
These apocalyptic passages from the New Testament have never appealed to me. I don’t like their antiquated cosmology and surrealistic images, but at a deeper level I dislike them because, at this darkest time of the year, they speak and require a homilist to speak about darkness, death and the END. These are things from which all living beings instinctively recoil. This is a voice which our society seeks to drown out with seductive distractions like Black Friday and the orgy of consumption it initiates. But the Reality these readings address, endings and the End, is a subject it’s good to ponder from time to time.
These readings speak of different kinds of endings. One is the personal ending that comes to all of us in death. Earlier in the discourse from which today’s gospel is taken, Jesus speaks about death not as a natural phenomenon that comes to all of us but as a consequence of following him. The authorities “will arrest you and persecute you and hand you over to (churches) and prisons…and put some of you to death,” he warns. This was actually happening when Luke wrote his Gospel. Many of its early readers probably knew or knew of a fellow believer who had been arrested, imprisoned, tortured and perhaps executed for being a follower of Jesus and knew that they themselves faced this possibility. Even today following Jesus is not entirely safe and never will be, because no empire can tolerate the radical love Jesus let loose in the world. It destroys the foundations on which imperial structures and relationships are built, whether in the church or secular society.
That leads us to the second type of endings mentioned in the Gospel–political endings. Earlier in this apocalyptic discourse, Jesus warned that the Temple will be burned to the ground and Jerusalem will be destroyed. This warning applies not just to Jerusalem. Every empire and nation rises, falls and passes away, no matter how great it may be. So, don’t put your hope in the nation! And finally, there is the cosmic ending. The sun will go out and the cosmos will fall apart. These images of cosmic destruction must have been difficult for the ancients, because they saw the universe as a static, unchanging reality. Perhaps they’re less strange for us, since we know that the universe is constantly evolving, and scientists tell us that the sun will go out in three or four billion years. So even the natural order is impermanent and cannot provide the security and meaning we all long for and need.
This dark part of today’s message isn’t very hard to believe today. The evidence is overwhelming, especially at this particular time. We have the means to bring some of this to pass ourselves. We see all round us the ravages of climate change. And we’ve seen mushroom clouds and know the power of the bomb to destroy human civilization. This aspect of the Advent message makes this season a time of penance. But it’s only half, and the less important half of the message. After confronting all these dark forces head on, all three of today’s readings insist that death and destruction will in the End not prevail. The final victory belongs to life and light. These readings challenge us to embrace this hope. “When these things begin to take place,” Jesus says, “ stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” And in First Thessalonians, Paul urges us “to put on the helmet of hope…for God has destined us not for wrath but…for salvation.” Words like these make Advent a season of hope and expectation.
This part of the Advent message is hard for us 21st century cynics to believe for reasons I mentioned above. If we consider only hard, scientific and historical evidence, it’s impossible to believe it. Perhaps that’s why Paul councils Believers to “put on the breastplate of faith.” The Advent message that redemption, not destruction, is the ultimate End of our planet and its creatures is credible only through the eyes of faith.
But an appeal to faith like this doesn’t solve the problem for me. I’m too much of a modern person. I believe, but my faith constantly seeks understanding and evidence—not the hard, conclusive evidence of science, but evidence that makes our modern understanding of the world a little more open to these Advent promises. In today’s readings, love is the evidence that these promises will be and are already being fulfilled. Love is an energy drawing us together in community and inspiring us to “encourage one another and build each other up.” And according to Teilhard de Chardin, love is not only an energy that draws human beings together. It is also the cosmic energy fueling evolution and drawing the matter of the universe together in more and more complex physical forms with higher levels of consciousness. For Teilhard, the Law of Love counteracts the law of entropy and in the end is stronger than entropy. Love keeps alive the hope that the universe will end not with death and dissolution, but with the coming of God’s reign in fulness.
Advent is a season of hope and Teilhard believed that nothing is more important for the future of humanity and planet earth than keeping Advent hope alive. He writes,“Expectation… of an end to the world—that is to say, of an issue for the world, …is perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of our religion…But in reality, we should have to admit…that we no longer expect anything. At all costs we must renew in ourselves the desire and hope for the great coming.” For Teilhard keeping this hope alive is so important, because it motivates and sustains human efforts to make the earth better, which means increasing the amount of love in the world. Without hope for the earth’s future, Teilhard fears efforts to increase the temperature of love on earth will peter out and humanity with them. But this pragmatic argument rests on Teilhard’s deeply held belief that the cosmos really is moving toward a fulfillment, which he calls Omega.
But what about all these biblical images of apocalyptic disaster and dissolution at the End? Influenced by these images, the Western Church has pictured the End of the World as a cosmic catastrophe. But Teilhard sees these images as referring rather to “birth pains” through which creation must pass on its journey from bondage to decay toward liberation. He also suggests another revision in the way we understand the End. The Church has seen the End as an event that could occur at any moment, irrespective of the evolutionary development of human consciousness. But Teilhard suggests that there is an organic relationship between evolution and the End of the World. “Why should we not assume…” that the End can only occur “when humankind has reached a certain critical evolutionary point of collective maturity,” he asks. When he writes in his book Human Energy “The most telling and profound way of describing the evolution of the universe would undoubtedly be to trace the evolution of love,” I think Teilhard is saying that he understands human maturity to be maturity in love.
This vision of the End of the world makes Advent not only a season of penance and expectation but also a season of action. During Advent we are called to act in ways that “prepare the way” for the coming of the Cosmic Christ. So, brothers and sisters, as we begin our Advent journey, let us put on the helmet of hope, stand up, raise our heads, and prepare the way for the Great Coming through acts of love, for our redemption is drawing near.