Sunday of November 29 – Advent 1
Gospel: Luke: 21:25-36
25 ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees;30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’
37 Every day he was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. 38And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple.
What is Luke saying? We naturally read the text about signs of sun and moon and stars as physical events. I think he intends this. But the text is also— perhaps mainly— about fear. The "roaring of sea and waves" is a symbol of the "primordial chaos" becoming resurgent. People "faint from fear and foreboding" is a translation of "breathe out life."
Peoples' breath will be taken away. In Gen 2:7, human life is connected with breath. To say that peoples' breath will be taken away is very close to saying that people will die. (John Petty)
Luke's text is about our interior life, and its terror, as much as it speaks about what may happen in the physical world.
At an ordinary Christmas dinner in 1965 I went back to the sideboard to help myself to more desert. Something stopped me. I stood still for so long my mother came to ask if I was all right. I could not answer her. There were no words a ten year old could use.
I had not learned the word apocalypse. It means revelation. At that moment something had been given to me. On that Christmas day there had been an unexpected birth, a sudden insight, new life. Still innocent, the newly born child of my Christmas knew— I knew, with sudden dread— that there was more to life than food and presents. And I began the long, slow apocalypse of a boy child in ockerdom, where the interior life was denied.
I had to learn, to decide, and to choose, whether that which was born in me was a christ-child a little lower than God, or my own private heart of darkness and horror.
The apocalypse is not some future event, but a present one. Everyone lives in a situation of impending doom—apocalypse—all the time. … At one time or another, for every person on earth, everything that used to feel solid and sure will start to come apart. Paul Tillich called this "the shaking of the foundations." Jesus said to expect it: "For it will come upon all the ones dwelling on the face of all the earth." (John Petty)
There were no words then, but I think the solidity of my life began to come apart that Christmas. I learned unknowing.
There is no life without the terrors of the interior. It's why we Australians pilgrimage to the heart of the country; we cannot stay away.
Our rejection of refugees is not really the fear that they will bring the violence of Syria into the country; that is a mere surface distraction, the thing you see when you don’t want to see. What we fear so deeply that we cannot bear to see it, is the breath-taking (Luke 21:26) and heart stopping fear we see on Syrian faces. If we faced their physical destruction and deprivation, we would lose the anaesthesia of our settled lives, and the pretence that life is safe and certain. The interior would rush to the surface, flooding us with all our years of denial.
To ask who am I is to confess that I don't know anything fundamental. It is a breath away from the crushing knowledge that I one day will not be. Better to bring a TV and microwave for the tent than to discover the Centre is not empty, but full of unwelcome life.
Mark faced such terror as Jerusalem was being destroyed, but there was a comfort. "In those days," as the city fell, the sun would be darkened, they would see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory…. and the elect would be gathered from "the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven." (Mark 13:24-27)
Luke lived with the fact that Jerusalem had fallen, but ten or fifteen years later, the Son of Man had not come. He held to the faith that it would happen. There would be a rescue. That is Luke's great insight and hope. When the signs are clear, don't be afraid. They are good news! "When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." (Luke 21:28) Be alert!
Except it has not come, still. Michael Coffey, waiting by the fig tree, laments
now the leaves brown and pirouette to the ground
and the branches look like weapons and the wind blows
through us and we are naked in our waiting in our weakened faith
Yet something about us cannot let go of the hope of him coming.
so why do we gather still and so, watching twigs sprout and bud
spying every last ficus cariga, eavesdropping to hear if you will curse it
or finally flower all hopes and dreams now shriveled on the branch (op. cit.)
It is because we are living in apocalypse. For all our comfortable houses, and our shutting of doors to block out the sound of the couple fighting in the street, we are living in the agony of fear and not knowing. It comes through the walls on our TVs. Syria on screen is the Syria in our souls— dissonance, agony, violence, lack of reason, terror.
Apocalypse is the steroid fuelled fear of Reclaim Australia, the same inner terror bursting into physical expression here in Australia, as it seeks to stop the physical expressions of terror— the refugees— being here in Australia. The interior world will not be denied, even though we deny its revelations.
We stand up and raise our heads
or we retreat into silent despair
locking the doors on life.
What frightens me most of all, is that if I despair, I am the violent denier, veins bulging. I refuse life to the child born in me. I do not let him grow to find that apocalypse reveals resurrection and kingdom of God . My despair is but deep repression of my raging terror, tinder for yet more violence.
The text this week is strangely appropriate. We are soon to celebrate the life of the Christ-child. But if we refuse his humanity; that is, if we will not own and live with the terrors of not knowing and the fears of death, how can he save us? For in such a refusal, we refuse the terrors of our being human. We retreat toward the violence of the entirely animal, and exist, unconscious. We do not follow him.