Tile: An apocalyptic advent
Texts: Isa 64:1-9; Ps 80:1-7, 17-19; Mk 13:24-37
Date: Nov 27, 2011
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
“See the sunlight, we ain’t stoppin’ / Keep on dancing till the world ends / If you feel it, let it happen / Keep on dancing till the world ends / Keep on dancing till the world ends.”[i]
I thought I’d continue where I left off last week, with Britney Spears; this time a song about the end of the world. As she imagines the end of all things, Ms. Spears pictures herself dancing, and invites us to dance too; not because dancing will change anything, but because it feels good, it’s a distraction… “dancing till the world ends.”
When Jesus talks about the end of the world, there isn’t any dancing going on. Instead, he talks about suffering and a time when “the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give light and the stars will be falling” (Mk 13:24-25). For Jesus, this is not a time of dancing, a time for distraction. No, it’s a time for patience, for waiting, fully aware, with all our senses tuned into the present: “What I say to you I say to all,” Jesus says, “Keep awake” (v. 37).
This first Sunday of Advent always trips me up. It always gets in the way of my excitement for the season. It gets in the way of Christmas and all that comes with it: for example, the festive music, music I look forward to for the whole year, music I started listening to a month ago when the Christmas album by She & Him was released: “It’s that time of year when the world falls in love, every song you hear seems to say, merry Christmas.”[ii] Christmas is a season for feel-good movies, like The Muppets, which I saw yesterday; I loved it — the singing and dancing, the happy ending, a perfect beginning to the Christmas season.
But then we hear Jesus talking about stars and planets falling from the sky, and the foundations of the earth being shaken. Now, it’s important to say that, in Jesus’s day and age, Jewish people talked like this, they used apocalyptic images of a darkened sun, of stars being snuffed out of the sky, to describe the cataclysmic events taking place around them, events that shattered their way of life, events that revealed that things don’t keep on going in the same direction, that history isn’t a simple progression from one phase to another, one age building upon the previous one. Apocalyptic language is what Jews use when the world is falling apart, when everything is crumbling, when the earth seems to be returning to chaos, to the chaos at the beginning of creation: “the earth was formless and void,” it says in Genesis, the beginning of the story. The heavenly lights God created at the beginning, the sun and moon and starts, are darkened as the world returns to darkness. Apocalyptic images are what people use to describe “the disintegration of the universe,” the un-creation of the world.[iii]
In Oakland, California, I bet the moon and stars were darkened with clouds of tear gas as nonviolent protestors faced the terror of paramilitary police in the streets; for the people in many cities across the United States, the sun turns to blood as they try to see again, as they recover from the violence of pepper spray, burning their eyes. The people in the streets are an apocalyptic announcement that this country, that this world, can’t go on in the same way — that, to use the language of Jesus, the powers will be shaken. Or, if it does go on, if nothing changes, if the current power and economic arrangement does go on and is able to roll over the poor, then the protestors will be back, after they regroup, perhaps after a long silence, long enough for us to get along with our lives, to go on dancing till the world ends. But they will return with an apocalyptic announcement that unveils the violence and greed of this system, an announcement that calls for the end of the current state of affairs. Yet “about that day or hour no one knows… Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (vv.32-33).
This first Sunday of Advent shocks us into awareness; it wakes us up and invites us to consider all the ways that Jesus is wrapped up in the cries for a new world, for all things to be reborn, created anew, restored. “Restore us, O God,” the Psalmist says over and over again, because, perhaps, God doesn’t answer. “Restore us, O God, let your face shine” (Ps 80:3, 7, 19). The Psalmist knows what God is all about: restoration is at the heart of God, that God will restore our lives, that God will restore our relationships, that God will restore justice and peace in the world, that God will restore us to those whom death has stolen from us. “Restore us, O God.” God is for restoration, for wholeness in our selves and in our world, which means God is decidedly against all forms of alienation, of separation.
So, we pray the words of Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isa 64:1).
God begins to answer this cry with the Incarnation, that movement of God’s union with humanity, God’s transgression of our alienation from God’s life. This is what Advent is all about, the Incarnation of Jesus — God’s sign to us that God will not leave us to sort out our problems on our own, that God will not have a life without us, that God undoes the most profound system of alienation of all, the division between God and us. No longer will the divine be separated from the human, that’s the message embodied in the life of Jesus. Incarnation is God’s sign to us that God will not tolerate the powers of separation, of alienation, that the life of God is itself a movement against the forces in the world that seek alienation, the powers that seek death. The Incarnation is a sign to us that God is with us, Immanuel, even in the darkness, even in the despair, even when the world is crumbling beneath our feet.
During this season of Advent we remember that God is wrapped up in all of this, that Jesus has everything to do with apocalyptic protests on the streets, and that Jesus has everything to do with our heartache and anger when we remember our losses, for the last enemy to be destroyed, Paul says, will be death itself, that ultimate power of alienation, the separation of loved ones from each other.
In the meantime, we have the words of Isaiah, and the words of the Psalmist:
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
“You have fed us with the bread of tears, and given us tears to drink in full measure.”
“Restore us, O God, and let your face shine.”
“Restore us, O God.”
“Restore us, O God, and let your face shine.”
[i] Britney Spears, “Till the World Ends,” Femme Fatale (Jive, 2011).
[ii] She & Him, “The Christmas Waltz,” A Very She & Him Christmas (Merge, 2011).
[iii] Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16 (New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, 2009), 906.