- Isaiah 64:1-9 & Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
- 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
- Mark 13:24-37
Advent marks the commencement of a new liturgical year, which begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas.
During this period, the major lectionaries will be especially close in the selection of readings although there is still a small amount of variation.
A review of the texts and themes to be covered in the season indicates that the lectionary invites us to reflect on the theme of divine visitation from a number of different perspectives:
- eschatological themes, with their focus on ultimate destiny and final judgment
- themes of promise and fulfillment, as prophetic texts from the Hebrew Bible find an echo in the Christian tradition
- history and theology, as people and places of real time become mirrors of eternity
- myth and legend, as the tradition draws on ancient archetypes to communicate its meaning
In broad terms the four Sundays of Advent focus on the following topics:
- The end of the World
- Jesus' baptism by John
- John's message
- The miraculous conception of Jesus
This cycle is rather different from the thematic series often associated with the Advent Candles:
- John the Baptist
- Blessed Virgin Mary
(OR, more commonly)
This week's notes will focus on the theme of eschatological climax suggested by the readings.
This week's readings
In the three readings set for this Sunday we have snapshots of a developing idea over several hundred years:
- In Isaiah 64 we hear the change as the prophetic voice despairs of God's salvation being delivered through a human agent and turns to ancient mythology of the divine warrior in the hope that God will intervene directly in human affairs. This is a significant "change of key" in the biblical tradition, as it marks a loss of confidence in the historical process and a retreat into myth and symbol. In this case, we probably hear the voice of the post-exilic Jerusalem community as they struggle with the harsh realities of life without any sign of the messianic blessings so confidently predicted by the earlier voices within the Isaiah school. The rough places have not been made smooth, the desert has not bloomed, and the wealth of the nations has not come flooding into Jerusalem. They are doing it tough, and the prophetic poet puts their aspirations into words: Come and help us, O God!
- 1 Corinthians 1 provides -- in passing but all the more cogent on that account -- a glimpse of how "the day of the LORD" (Hebrew: yom YHWH) had become the "day of the Lord Jesus Christ" in the first generation of Christians after the death of Jesus. From its original meaning of a "festival day (devoted to Yahweh)" the yom YHWH had already become the day of divine visitation in the preaching of the 8C BCE prophets and then the eschatological day of God's judgment on behalf of the elect ones in Jewish apocalyptic thought. Now -- assisted no doubt by the ambiguity of the word kyrios (Lord) -- the day of the Lord has become the day when Jesus the anointed ruler will arrive to impose God's rule on the world, to save/reward the faithful and to punish the wicked. All this in less than 25 years since Easter. Note the brief sketch of the Christ-centered eschatological program provided by Paul in 1Cor 15:24-27:
Then comes the end,
when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father,so that God may be all in all.
after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.
For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” ...
When all things are subjected to him,
then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him,
- In Mark 13 we find a later stage of the tradition. Now it is not sufficient simply to affirm that the long-anticipated "day of the LORD" is imminent, and that it will be the occasion for the risen Jesus to arrive and inaugurate his reign. Instead the final events have to be described in great detail, and Jesus himself has to be an apocalyptic seer who foretells his own advent while denying any knowledge of the exact time and place. Cosmic phenomena commonly found in Jewish apocalyptic texts from the "Second Temple" era are now put onto the lips of Jesus, along with angels sent by God to gather the elect (a very Jewish concept) from the diaspora where they have been scattered to the four corners of the earth. The original Jewish (rather than Christian) character of these traditions is not only seen in the concern for the diaspora elect, but also in the fact that it is the angels send by God who gather the elect rather than Jesus.
With the passing of some 40 or so years between the time of Jesus and the composition of Mark, we see the author asserting that "this generation" will not pass before all these hopes are fulfilled. Mark 13 therefore represents a (somewhat desperate?) assertion of Christian apocalyptic faith in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies in 70 CE and the failure of Jesus to arrive as expected. Mark's enigmatic ending, which has an empty tomb but no appearances by the risen Lord, urges the reader not to look for Jesus in Jerusalem but to get back to Galilee for it is there that they will meet him:
As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Jesus' apocalyptic return
As noted recently, the theme of Jesus' apocalyptic return ranks second highest in the 522 items in John Dominic Crossan's inventory of historical Jesus traditions:
- It enjoys multiple independent attestation, including the earliest extant Christian document (1 Thessalonians).
- It is found in such different trajectories as Paul, the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John, the Book of Revelation and the Didache.
- It is preserved in several different genre: letters, gospels, apocalypse and catechesis.
Some scholars believe that behind the Apocalyptic Discourse in Mark 13 (and its parallels in Matthew 24 and Luke 21) lies an even earlier collection of prophetic sayings attributed to Jesus. This "Little Apocalypse" could be even older than 1 Thessalonians -- perhaps prompted by the crisis in 40 CE when Caligula sought (unsuccessfully) to have a statue of himself placed in the Jewish temple at Jerusalem.
Now [in 39 CE] Gaius (Caligula) bore a grudge for being ignored only by the Jews in this respect [i.e., honoring him as divine]. So he sent his legate, Petronius, to Syria to take the rule over from Vitellius and ordered him to lead a large force into Judea. If they received him willingly, he was to place a statue of (Caligula) in the temple of God. But if they treated him with arrogance, he still was to do this after mastering them in battle.
--- Josephus, Antiquities 18.261
Other significant passages that preserve variations on the early Christian eschatological discourse include 2Thess 2 and Didache 16:
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned. (2Thess 2:1-12, NRSV)
Keep vigil over your life.
Let your lamps not go out and let your loins not be weak(Didache 16:1-8 Hermeneia)
but be ready, for you do not know the hour at which our Lord is coming.
You shall assemble frequently,
seeking what pertains to your souls,
for the whole time of your belief will be of no profit to you
unless you are perfected at the final hour.
For in the final days false prophets and corrupters will be multiplied,
and the sheep will turn into wolves,
and love will turn into hate.
As lawlessness increases, they will hate and persecute and betray one another.
And at that time the one who lead the world astray will appear as a "son of God"
and will work signs and wonders,
and the earth will be given into his hands,
and he will do godless things which have never been done since the beginning of time.
Then the human creation will pass into the testing fire
and many will be scandalized and perish,
but those who persevere in their belief will be saved by the curse itself.
And then the signs of truth will appear:
first, the sign of extension [i.e., the Cross] in heaven;
next, the signal of the trumpet call;
and third, resurrection of the dead --
not of all, however, but, as it has been said,
"The Lord will come and all the holy ones with him."
Then the world will see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven ...
While the Didache has elements of a developing Christian mythology -- including the idea that the Cross was raised to heaven along with Jesus on Easter morning (cf. GPeter 10:39) -- it also retains a primitive Christian character, notably, ideas which other texts place on the lips of Jesus (Mark) or attribute to him as "a word from the Lord" (Paul), are still spoken by the anonymous Christian author with Jesus being mentioned in the third person. On the other hand, the Didache may be familiar with the problem posed by lapsed Christians, whose prior piety will do them no good if they are not "perfected" at the final hour, when the eschatological foe (here called "the world-deceiver" rather than "antichrist") appears to test them.
After almost two thousand years, not to mention the emancipation of the human intellect achieved by the Enlightenment or our vastly expanded knowledge of the universe, the myth of Jesus coming to the earth from a divine realm beyond death is not an idea that can be taken literally. The challenge for us is to put into contemporary terms our own sense of the cosmic significance of Jesus:
- What is it about his life, his words, his death, his continuing presence as risen Lord that continues to exercise a hold over us: calling us to account just as powerfully as a classic Judgment Day scene?
- What does faithfulness to Christ now demand of us?
- How do we expect the future to be impacted by God's imperial authority?
- 002 Jesus Apocalyptic Return - (1) 1 Thess 4:13-18; (2) Did. 16:6-8; (3) Matt 24:30a; (4) Mark 13:24-27 = Matt 24:29,30b-31 = Luke 21:25-28; (5a) Rev 1:7; (5b) Rev 1:13; (5c) Rev 14:14; (6) John 19:37.
- 265 Within this Generation - (1) Mark 13:28-32 = Matt 24:32-36 = Luke 21:29-33.
- 188 The Unknown Time - (1a) Mark 13:33-37; (1b) Matt 24:42; (1c) Matt 25:13; (2) Luke 12:35-38; (3) Luke 21:34-36; (4) Did. 16:1.
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt's web site
Other recommended sites include:
Advent for Children
This PowerPoint™ file offers a child-friendly version of the Jesus story (including the development of the post-Easter tradition) prepared by Peter J. Barnes and original illustrations by Bronwyn O'Callaghan. The file is 5.8MB in size and has preset transitions to run automatically. These settings can be edited as desired.
See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre: