Thursday, December 01, 2005

Advent Thickets

At the end of my last post I wrote, "Something to ponder as we make our way through the thickets of Advent." I had in mind the idea that during this period of the church year, the lectionary texts get kind of gnarly. Images of judgment, heaven, hell, the Second Coming of Christ, the separation of sheep and goats, the end of the world, etc., abound in what has become a sanitized, or should I say "Santatized" month of the year. This discord between the church's agenda of preparation for the coming of the Lord, and the world's sensual pursuit of "decking the halls," offers a prophetic moment for Christians. "Stop looking backwards," we can say, "and start looking toward the future, to the second Advent! The one with the clouds of glory, the lake of fire, the melting of the universe's primal elements (2 Peter 3:12)." Yes, those thickets.

Advent used to be longer. In the early church, Advent began 40 days before Christmas, on St. Martin's day, November 11, and was a time of fasting and sacrifice, similar to Lent. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were fast days. In the 14th century, the Roman liturgy reduced it to four weeks, with an emphasis on penance and preparation, and it has remained so ever since. Advent should be a startling time of the year, but instead we just exhaust ourselves, and end up with rhino-viruses and sugar-coated Christianity. This Sunday the epistle lesson is from Second Peter chapter 3, and the imagery is astonishing. The Day of the Lord will result in the earth and heavens being burned up, the atmosphere kindled, and the celestial bodies extinguished. The very elements of matter which make up the universe (στοιχεια): earth, air, and water, will "melt with fervent heat" (v.13). The impact of this preview of the end of days is profound: "Therefore, since all these things will be destroyed, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness" (v.11). We are inspired to look forward to "a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (v.13). Such is the better hope of the gospel, compared with all worldly trinkets which are passing away.

Some may question the church's choice of Advent texts, but the early Christians knew better, living as they did in such precarious times. For they looked up amidst their flaming stakes and thickets of kindling, past the smoke of their own burning, to behold a kingdom immune from the assaults of time and evil. So how hard is it for us to follow their gaze, from our ceiled houses and couches of ease?

{illustration: "Armageddon," Zurich Bible, 1536}


Blogger Steve said...

I read this today as well - 2 Peter 3. The first creation destroyed by water; this one by fire. Some have thought it refers to nuclear meltdown.

Right on that earlier generations laudably didn't gloss over the "hard" texts.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

I thought Advent was when we sang Christmas carols and complained about the minister...

10:51 AM  

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