Christmas Cheer + Eschatology

[Or, "Why do I keep hearing about the second coming when I'm trying to focus on sweet baby Jesus?"]

Like liturgical Christians everywhere, we at St. Luke’s have been pondering the meaning of Advent (the weeks leading up to Christmas) in the last couple Sundays. I should probably issue this disclaimer before you read further: Colin and I LOVE Advent, but not for the normal reasons people usually like “the holiday season.” 

No, we love Advent for weird, churchy, Christian-y, maybe even Episcopalian reasons.* (No, I’m not talking about the pretty colors we get to wear.) As far as I can tell, we love Advent because it is the most in-your-face “THE WORLD IS NOT AS IT SHOULD BE” time of year. We know this, year round, but in Advent the readings we hear tap into this unspoken pain and yearning for something better. More than anything, Advent is about an honest longing for a more just and beautiful reality.

So while we DO spend time pondering the world-turned-upside-down-crazy-beautiful proclamation that the poor little peasant baby, Jesus of Nazareth, is God’s revelation of God’s self to humanity, we also spend a lot of time pondering the claims about Christ that go beyond the first century -- and beyond our century. We think about end-times Jesus; the “second coming,” as it is often referred to in popular culture. The time when Christ finally establishes in some mysterious way the glorious and just reign of God; when all is made well, and the hills are brought low and the valleys are raised up.

To be clear, I was not raised to be a “second coming” oriented kind of Christian. It was not something talked about much in the Presbyterian church of my youth, and I am grateful. I’m beginning to think that eschatology is an interest that is ideally developed later in life, like wine tasting and child-rearing. I’m only sort of kidding. It makes sense that we spend the first third of our lives simply focused on discovering, to the best of our ability, how to be the human being God created us to be; how to love others to the best of our broken ability; how to begin to participate in building God’s kingdom/ making the world a better place. Many obviously don’t have this luxury. But if we do (as I did), it’s a beautiful way to meet God, to encounter the way of Jesus. The second coming is … well, secondary.

But then, Donald J. Trump wins the presidential election in the United States of America. And, year after year, day after day, the news of pain and suffering and injustice begins to wear down that shiny youthful lens on life. And then, Advent comes strolling in with a potent cocktail of prophetic justice, personal nostalgia, and Jesus as the revolutionary peasant (the “un-king”) who IN THE END GETS TO HAVE THE FINAL WORD. Whew. Jesus as the final decider, not the crazy people who make up this life. And, just like that, I suddenly see the appeal of the second coming.

I know it has something to do with getting to know the faithful people at St. Luke’s, too. Most of them are Sudanese refugees who have lived in war, in displacement, and in the heartbreak that comes with watching their new nation quickly dissolve into civil war. Jewish and Christian eschatology (the study or pondering of “the end times”) was born from political disenfranchisement and oppression, for good reason. We all yearn for a better world, but I am under no illusion that the shape and depth of that yearning is equal; I see again, when I ponder even small details of the war-time survival stories I have heard, how the second coming might be good news, even essential.

I am treading cautiously on this ground of even thinking about the eschatological Christ, because it seems to lead to often weird and psychologically manipulative and  judgmental places. And besides, I don’t like to be weird. But the truth is, I’m already a Christian weirdo, and this element of our faith is not exactly secret. We say it every week in the Nicene Creed. So I’m going to continue to ponder this mystery, this proclamation, this Advent: “He will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

It’s good for my Advent spirits. Obviously, as usual, two thousand years of tradition turns out to be wiser than I am about these things. Because in the wake of the presidential election, I need to be reminded, again and again, that I live my life for and under a very different dominion, the compassionate and yet fierce and yet self-giving God who made us and all creation, the Lord of light and life. My grounding in these crazy days is that, as Christians, our “job description” remains the same no matter who leads the country we live in.

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.”

This is true all of the time. But in Advent, we name it. The kingdom lies beyond us, and that’s painful. But in the long, long, view, there is God; there is Christ. Mysterious and scary in that second-coming way, at least for a white mainline protestant girl like me. But it helps me feel oriented, at least this year. Where are we? Oh, that’s right. We’re here, in the time before everything is made right. But what we do matters, and we are responsible for what we do. So keep walking. Your un-king is watching, and will travel with you, that same Christ of scary power and incredible humility and love. It’s amazing and wondrous, in a deeply Christmas sort of way.

And … there are still two Sundays left in this Advent journey. If I haven’t totally scared you out of contemplating Christmas beyond beautiful Starbucks cups, I hope you’ll join us at St. Luke’s.


*Someone once pointed out to me that Episcopalians are about the opposite of Joel Osteen, the smiling pastor who proclaims hope and triumph in every word. Our denomination tends more towards analysis of just how quickly the human ship is sinking, how very unjust this world is, etc.  I don’t think we’re quite that dreary, but it’s a fair point.