By Ched Myers, for the 1st Sunday in Advent (Luke 21: 25-36)
Note: This is the first of a series of Ched’s occasional comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year C, 2015-16. Other commentators during Year C will be Wes Howard Brook and Sue Ferguson. Check this site weekly!
First Advent is the beginning of the Church’s liturgical year; we begin a new cycle of readings, keyed now to the gospel of Luke. As do the last weeks of Ordinary Time (see my comments on Mark 13 earlier this month), the first week of Advent draws on the synoptic apocalypse, the “last things” clearing the way for renewal—cutting through the sentimentality of the season with prophetic realism.
The gospel reading for Advent 1 picks up the last third of Jesus’ sermon about the “end of the world.” Luke’s version weaves together three apocalyptic traditions:
- Cosmic signs of judgment (Lk 21:25-28), drawn from Isaiah 24,34, Joel 2, and Daniel 7;
- Harvest-as-kairos symbolism (vv. 29-33), drawn from Mark’s fig tree parable; and
- An exhortation to vigilance anticipating the imminent unraveling of social order (vv. 34-36).
The biblical notion of nature’s rebellion against imperial transgressions is as old as the plagues of Egypt, and recurs throughout the Hebrew prophets. But it takes on new poignancy in light of anthropogenic climate catastrophe. These ancient biblical “signs of the end” have become an historic ultimatum. This is why I hope we all join the recent call for preachers to focus on these issues—both in Word and Deed—on First Advent, as international leaders gather in Paris for the U.N. climate summit.
The image of the end coming “like a thief in the night” is a trope so ubiquitous in primitive Christian tradition that it must have been central to the early movement’s catechism (see also Mt 24:43/Lk 12:39; II Pt 3:10; Rev 3:3, 16:15). There is strong resonance between Luke and the tone of Paul’s earliest apocalyptic warning (Gk aiphnidios “suddenly” appears only in these verses in the N.T.):
Luke 21:34-36: Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you suddenly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times (Gk kairō)…
I Thess 5:1-6: Now concerning the times (Gk chronos) and the seasons (kairos), brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.
Note that Paul deploys both Greek words for time at the outset of his exhortation, directing us to confront the urgency of the chronological unfolding and the deep meaning of the historical moment. The apostle goes on to reject the Empire’s assurances of “peace and security” that seek to distract us from the actual crisis of the human condition—the rhetoric of Roman propaganda. We should seek the same clarity in our times.
The apocalyptic realism of the New Testament is most fully expressed by that political prisoner of Patmos. In Revelation 6 John names four horsemen who symbolize the dominating power of the Roman Empire that had thrown him into jail and the nations into chaos (6:12-14 also uses the same cosmic images of Luke 21). This cavalry from hell is evocative, and illuminates the images of this Sunday’s gospel:
- The white horse of conquest (Rev 6:2) represents the culture, structures and history of empire-as-domination, what we might call the “generative conditions” for the three harbingers of death that follow inevitably in its wake.
- The first is the red horse of militarism (Rev 6:4), trading peace for a sword, generating reciprocal, spiraling violence.
- The black horse represents the political economy of the 1% (6:5f): prices on staple foodstuffs are driven up by the profiteers of poverty, while that of luxury goods are protected. If the red horse brings swift destruction to victims of war, markets defined by artificial scarcity and artificial abundance construct and maintain a racialized poverty that brings a more slow-burning holocaust, one that dehumanizes before it kills.
- Bringing up the rear is the pale horse of death (6:8), which intensifies the scourge of the previous two, but also has the power to kill “with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.” This curious last phrase suggests an image of nature gone toxic, now a destroyer rather than a nurturer of life.
The anthropogenic unraveling of the natural world is a disaster the ancients could not have imagined, yet saw through their prophetic glass darkly. But it has become the defining feature of our modern reality. The interlocking and thoroughly ecological crises of climate change, resource depletion, habitat destruction, and species extinction now conspire in what Michael Northcott’s important A Political Theology of Climate Change (2013) calls the relentless “geopolitics of a slow catastrophe.”
The truth is, this ecological endgame has ambushed our historical project, despite the prescient biblical warnings above. For the entire time humans have dwelled on the planet, broad patterns of environmental change, no matter how dramatic, happened incrementally—day by month by year by century—always giving bipeds (and other creatures) enough time to adjust. We could rely on the taproot grace of Creator, gifting sun and rain on the just and unjust alike. Aside from the outbreak of occasional millennial fevers generated by the travails of empire, human societies could always assume another day, a next generation, one more chance.
But now it appears that the curtain is closing, relentlessly pulled by machinery of our own making, with a momentum that cannot be reversed even if we could find the collective will—and the right levers to pull. There can be no escape from anthropogenic ecological catastrophe—other than that of denial. But this is precisely the “darkness” that our readings insist believers must not take refuge in; such willful abandonment of response-ability is denounced by the Luke as “drunkenness” and by Paul as “sleepwalking.”
Our industrial culture seems terminally stuck in a “crapulous” hangover (the phrase is from Lk 21:34, Gk kraipalē) from our addictive-compulsive binge that has pillaged the earth and brought us to the brink. But Christians are called to live fully awake to the realities of this crisis (and our complicity with it), in order to “stand” against the wrath of imperial history (Lk 21:36, Rev 6:17), holding out to the end for healing. Here our discipleship either truly ends or truly begins. Which is why we should march this first weekend of Advent, and continue to do so in the months and years to come, for climate justice and gospel repentance.