Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent (28 November 2021)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
“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. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
“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, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be 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” (Luke 21:25-28 & 34-36 – NRSV).
Central to our thinking about the Christian life is the Incarnation – God’s being in the flesh. That is both a historical fact – which includes the political, the cultural, the social and the physical – and a theological fact. The reality of the Incarnation means, amongst other things, that we encounter God in history not outside history. We must resist any temptation to avoid the historical facts of life. Sometimes the Church has been regarded as some kind of metaphysical reality that stands outside history The Church is a historical reality:
“We must go through the finite, the limited, the definite, omitting none of it lest we omit some of the potency of being-in-the-flesh. This does not mean that we should go through it violently, looking for a means to a breakthrough; that would be to try to accomplish everything at one stroke. The finite is not itself a generality, to be encompassed in one fell swoop. Rather it contains many shapes and byways and clevernesses and powers and diversities and persons, and we must not go too fast from the many to the one. We waste our time if we try to go around or above or under the definite; we must literally go through it. And in taking this narrow path directly, we shall be using our remembered experience of things seen and earned in a cumulative way, to create hope in the things that are not yet seen” (William Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination, University of Notre Dame, 1975, 7).
It is essential that we remember that the Church is part of history and subject to the forces of history when we read the sometimes strange texts of apocalyptic literature.
Apocalyptic literature evokes many differing responses, even from the scholars:
“Scholars have had a great deal of ambivalence regarding apocalyptic literature. John Collins illustrates that ambivalence. On the one hand, he quotes Ernst Käsemann: Apocalyptic is ‘the mother of all Christian theology’. On the other hand, he immediately cites Klaus Koch, saying, ‘Apocalyptic is perplexing and embarrassing’. Collins wisely reflects upon the embarrassing popular association of the word apocalyptic with fanatical millennial groups, who justify their actions in the name of a God who is intent on destroying evil and cautions against a prejudice that is pervasive even within biblical scholarship. He further suggests that overreaction as a result of such a one-sided approach characteristic of millennial groups is unwarranted and asks for restraint on the part of all” (Dorothy Jonaitis, Unmasking Apocalyptic Texts: A Guide to Preaching and Teaching, New York; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005, 9).
Let us begin with a piece of modern apocalyptic literature. It is a poem by Oscar Romero called “Let us not be disheartened” (Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love, compiled and trans. by James R. Brockman, SJ, Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing, 1998, 25):
Let us not be disheartened
even when the horizon of history grows dim and closes in,
as though human realities made impossible
the accomplishment of God’s plans.
God makes use even of human errors,
even of human sins,
so as to make rise over the darkness what Isaiah spoke of.
One day prophets will sing
not only the return from Babylon
but our full liberation.
‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.
They walk in lands of shadows,
but a light has shone forth’.
Our English words, “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic”, come from the Greek word, apokaluptein, meaning “uncover” or “reveal”. The central focus of Christian apocalyptic literature – including the last book of the Bible – is the ultimate uncovering or final and complete revealing of the glory of God in Jesus who is the Christ. It is an affirmation of the victory of God in Christ – against the odds. It may be thought of as a revelation of a restoration. There is to be found in the apocalyptic literature therefore, reasons for hope. History is not just random, made up of accidents. History is governed by an ultimate intent and purpose that belongs to God. The final achievement of that purpose necessarily involves a complete break with all that is not part of that purpose. If our grounding in life and our expectations of God are not in tune with that final achievement, the ending of our “worlds” will be threatening.
Amidst varying opinions of the scholars, N T Wright argues – cogently it seems to me – that this kind of apocalyptic literature, in the Jewish tradition, is actually investing historical and political events with their true theological significance. This is an expression of the general axiom that history is in fact salvation history:
“In a culture where events concerning Israel were believed to concern the creator God as well, language had to be found which could both refer to events within Israel’s history and invest them with the full significance which, within that worldview, they possessed. One such language …. was apocalyptic” (N T Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992, 283. See this entire Chapter 10).
Matthew 24:29–31 has a similar passage. Both Luke and Matthew here as elsewhere draw on Mark – see Mark 13.24–27. There is no comparable passage in John’s Gospel. Though John has the Book of Revelation – formerly called the Book of the Apocalypse.
“We have seen how in the first part of Jesus’ discourse (Luke 21:5-24), Luke has shaped the Prophet’s words so that they can be perceived by the reader as having been already fulfilled, first in the experience of persecution by the first Christians (recounted in Luke’s own narrative of Acts in words directly derived from this discourse), and secondly in the events surrounding the fall of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. An even greater confidence is thereby engendered in these final words which concern the true eschatological event, the coming of the Son of Man, which Luke suggests is the ‘fulfillment’ of the kingdom of God, the moment when God’s rule becomes definitive” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 329-330).
signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars: Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, it is reported that Jesus’ opponents asked for a ‘sign from heaven’ (11:16) and Jesus refuses to give it. However, there will eventually be signs and wonders as the final intention of God is revealed.
distress among nations: The revelation and restoration concerns more than Israel – it has universal application. In the light of the historical circumstances – they had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and the horrible brutality and cruelty that accompanied that event, and they would have heard of the suicide of Nero (68 CE) and known of the instability accompanying the quick succession of four emperors immediately following Nero’s suicide – Luke’s listeners would have been very attuned to “distress among the nations”. (Nero was followed by Galba, Otho, Vitellius – each of whom lasted a few months – then Vespasian who lasted for nearly ten years.)
‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’: Luke makes a transition from clearly discernible historical events that his audience would have witnessed, to a theological expectation that remains to be seen. Luke is dependent on Daniel 7 here. Thus, N T Wright: “One of the most popular prophecies of the day, this passage was believed to speak about the time when God’s true people would be vindicated after their suffering at the hands of the ‘beasts’, the pagan nations who had oppressed them. This prophecy imagines a great lawcourt scene, in which God, the judge, finds in favour of his people, ‘the son of man’, and against the oppressive ‘beast’. The judgment that falls on the pagan nations is the same judgment that vindicates ‘the son of man’, who is then brought on a cloud to share the throne of God himself.
“The best way of understanding this passage in Luke is then to see it as the promise that, when the Jerusalem that had opposed his message is finally overthrown, this will be the vindication of Jesus and his people, the sign that he has indeed been enthroned at his Father’s side in heaven (see 20:42–43). Luke does, of course, believe in the ‘second coming’ of Jesus (Acts 1:11), but this passage is not about that. It is about the vindication of Jesus and the rescue of his people from the system that has oppressed them” (N T Wright, Luke for Everyone, London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004, 255-256).
Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down etc: This is precisely where the memory of Incarnation counts! We are disciples for the long haul and the long haul can be demanding, tedious, even boring. We can grow weary. Fidelity can be sorely tried. So be attentive, alert, determined – stay the path!
Reflection – Reason to be afraid?
Emotions are gifts from God. The English word comes from the Latin word, movere, “to move”. Our “being moved” is neither good nor bad. It just is! Like any emotion, fear has its rightful place. For example, fear can help to guard us against doing stupid and/or dangerous things which would be better avoided. But fear can also trap us. It can place us at odds with wonderful and life-giving things which would be better embraced or at least regarded positively.
In nearly fifty years of pastoral work as a priest, I have seen far too much of the latter, where fear prevents people experiencing what Pope Francis has called evangelii gaudium – “the joy of the Gospel”. This destructive experience of fear can be born of a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of divine revelation.
Today’s Gospel – Luke 21:25-28 & 34-36 – is a text that is easily misunderstood and misrepresented. Yes, the first two sentences contain dire warnings about “signs in the sun, the moon and the stars”, “distress” and people “fainting from fear”. The next two sentences however give the context: “The Son of Man coming with power and great glory”. His disciples will have reason to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The text is reason to rejoice not fear!
Is it possible that some religious people have a vested – pathological? – interest in promoting fear? This is a perversion of the Good News. It misrepresents the life and teachings of Jesus. Repeatedly in Luke’s Gospel Jesus speaks of compassion and mercy. See for example those two majestic parables – the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). And John sums up the teaching of Jesus: “there is no fear in love” – see 1John 4:18.
Notwithstanding the truth of what is revealed to us in the Gospels, it must be said that, in the history of the Catholic Church, fear has been used as a major motivating force. Given that, it is not surprising that fear has become deeply embedded in the souls of many faithful Catholics. It is not surprising either that it has prompted many to walk away from the Catholic Church.
Perhaps one of the major culprits here is the “reward and punishment” mentality. According to this mentality – pervasive within Catholic popular teaching and preaching – Jesus is seen primarily as a moral teacher, the Bible as a moral map and the Christian life in terms of right and wrong behaviour – the former earning us rewards, the latter earning us punishment. This is an awful travesty of Divine Revelation, as Pope Francis reminds us: “The life of the Church should always reveal clearly that God takes the initiative, that ‘he has loved us first’ (1 Jn 4:19) and that he alone ‘gives the growth’ (1 Cor 3:7). This conviction enables us to maintain a spirit of joy in the midst of a task so demanding and challenging that it engages our entire life. God asks everything of us, yet at the same time he offers everything to us” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #12)