Advent 1, B
I have a toilet in my living room. White porcelain, normal, toilet looking toilet. The sort of thing that would look right at home in a bathroom. Mine, however is right in the middle of the living room. Slightly off center in front of the fireplace. I have a toilet in my living room because I got tired of having a toilet in my foyer, and at least the living room is on the same floor as the bathroom that it will eventually reside in. Except that other things happen. Life things. Things that need to happen before the toilet can go live in its forever home. Life things. Right now things. Must happen today things. So there it sits. In my living room. For the last, I don’t know 2 or 4 or maybe 6 months now. Thing is, at this point, I have a highly efficient living room toilet filter. Unless I accidentally throw the dog’s toy into it, I do not even see the porcelain sculpture in the middle of my living room. Until somebody comes over. Then I become exquisitely, painfully aware of the toilet in my living room and really wish I’d done something about it. Beware, keep alert.
The people who first heard the Gospel of Mark had a problem. The Gospel of Mark is widely accepted to be the oldest of the Gospels, probably written about 66 AD (CE), at the height of Roman persecution of Christians in the days of Nero. Aside from the issue of avoiding the unhealthy attention of Nero, these early Christians had another, more theological problem. For many, if not for most, Jesus seemed to be running a little late. They had waited these 30+ years since Jesus’s death with great faith and not inconsiderable patience for the second coming. They held an imminent eschatology (eschatology is just a fancy word for the final destiny of humankind or of the soul). They believed that Jesus was going to come and the world was going to end imminently. Except that it hadn’t. Yet.
In response to the prolonged delay many began to think perhaps there had been a misunderstanding, and that actually Jesus’s return wasn’t imminent, but rather would mark the culmination of all world events – a future eschatology.
The Gospel of Mark be-bops between an imminent and a future eschatology on practically on a verse by verse basis. Some verses seem to suggest an apocalypse the day after tomorrow would not be an unreasonable expectation; other verses shift the end times comfortably down the road of time. Scholars suggest the author was working from two different sources as he penned his work. Unable to make up his mind between the two options, he wove them together into a single narrative. Scholar David Lose suggests instead that Mark quite deliberately blurs the distinction. He mindfully calls into question the false dichotomy between an imminent and future eschatology, suggesting “all of our anticipation and preparation of Jesus’ second advent should be shaped by his first advent in the form of a vulnerable infant and as a man hanging on a tree.” He posits that “Mark is inviting us to look for Jesus – even here, even now – in similar places of vulnerability, openness, and need.”
“In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
This reading is sometimes called Mark’s mini-apocalypse. We think of an apocalypse as an ending, yet here we stand on the first day for the new church year, awaiting the birth of the Christ child – and facing the apocalypse. We shy away from these dire warnings, these frightening images. They are uncomfortable and frightening and disrupt the Christmas mood. Our peril sensors flare and our filters lock firmly into place and we do not see – just as I don’t see the toilet in my living room.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Advent is the time to remember that we are the stuff of dirt and ash, yet also the stuff of stars molded by God into something Holy and His. The time to drop our filters and see in the world about us the dire and horrific, the grungy and unfair, the sad and vulnerable all wrapped around the sacred potential that is God’s world.
“The Church gives these apocalyptic warnings as a gift, to shake away complacency, to shock into second sight, to awake to the immediacy of salvation wrapped in breathtaking clouds of doom,” writes one priest.
“The soul’s journey begins in apocalypse. Cataclysm dims the safe filters of ordinary sight to heighten the view of Reality. Shock, fear, grief, courage, and then, perhaps, curiosity, opens the door to the mystical life. Once you pass through the threshold of doom, ultimately, you’ll awake to the beauty of holiness.” Suzanne Guthrie
Keep awake therefore. Watch. And See.