The story of the end, of the last word
of the end, when told, is a story that never ends.
At last month’s Rally to Restore Sanity, Jon Stewart’s moving summation included this line: “We live in hard times, not end times.” He didn’t elaborate but his audience knew what he meant: Shame on the doom-and-gloom politicians and pundits who frame every issue in apocalyptic terms, exploiting the fear and ignorance of those who are sure that President Obama is the anti-Christ or that Sarah Palin is the devil in lipstick and high heels. It seemed, given the loony times in which we live, a very sane thing to say.
But I suspect that theological nerds everywhere winced a little when they heard it. And yet their discomfort (ok, my discomfort) was complicated. On the one hand, Christians-who-are-fans-of-Jon-Stewart do not want to be identified with the biblical fundamentalists currently running conservative politics in America. But many of these same Christians (ok, me again) do believe, odd as it sounds, that we live in the “end times.”
Let me explain.
Christianity makes the brazen claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the end of history — and the double-entendre is deliberate: On the one hand, in Jesus, history as we know it has come to an end; and on the other, the life, death, and resurrection of this first-century crucified Jew is the telos, the goal, the realized hope of all of human (and non-human) existence.
First, in Jesus the kingdom of God has come near — is in our very midst, in fact. This doesn’t mean that the gospel has ushered in a new era of social progress (as liberal Christians would have it) or that (as conservatives insist) only the doctrinally pure will have their pie in the sky after a militant Messiah returns to earth in a literal blaze of glory. No – in Jesus, history has been redeemed, the saeculum reclaimed as the arena of God’s ongoing activity in the world, and the forces of violence, despair, and death undone. The “end times” began two millenia ago; we’re still in them.
Second, the crucified and risen Christ not only interrupts history but consummates it. Precisely in and through the historical contingencies of first-century Palestine — this specific set of laws and customs, that particular Roman procurator — the future, God’s good future, has arrived. In a backwater province of the Empire, the truth of the triune God has broken history open not through political coercion or insurrection but with a revolution of forgiving, reconciling love. As John Howard Yoder put it:
The point that apocalyptic makes is not only that people who wear crowns and who claim to foster justice by the sword are not as strong as they think – true as that is . . . It is that people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe.
It is in the season of Advent that the Church most fully reckons with the eschatological dimension of Christian theology and discipleship. Yet this can seem a nonsensical claim in churches where Advent often resembles the cultural countdown to Christmas, with shades of purple scattered about to give it a sober, “religious” tinge.
But Advent marks the intersection of the already and the not yet, of the sacred and secular, the spiritual and material. Advent is when and where the end of history is seen for what it is: the good news of God that wounds even as it heals. The appointed scriptural texts for the season speak to this, especially St. Matthew’s summons to watchfulness and readiness and the ravings of John the Baptizer. But a domesticated, accomodated Church can hardly bear any of it. Just give us angels and shepherds and virgins already, please.
In eschatological time “the end is where we start from.” The cross makes the creche intelligble. Advent names the tension in which we live and helps us to anticipate, indeed to practice for, the time when, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “the fire and the rose are one.” Terror and beauty, judgment and hope, sorrow and joy — these realities of our everyday lives reveal the paradox at the heart of life on this side of the eschaton. They are the Advent way.
The epigraph at the top of this post comes from the beginning of Mark Strand’s poem, “The Seven Last Words.” Its last words seem a fitting conclusion here:
as always, the sea of endless transparence, of utmost
calm, a place of constant beginning that has within it
what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand
has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart.
To that place, to the keeper of that place, I commit myself.