Apocalypse: Then and Now

In recent years, Thanksgiving feasts at my house have all featured a culinary wonder that I simply call "The High-Heat Turkey." This family tradition began about seven years ago, when a food critic for the New York Times, Suzanne Hamlin, published an article that gave an account of her own turkey-roasting research. This critic had roasted nineteen identical turkeys. Each turkey was cooked at a different temperature. Some were roasted slowly at low, low heats; others were placed in ovens with elevated temperatures that were gradually reduced over time; some were basted, some were not; some covered with cheese cloth, some not. At the conclusion of her study, Hamlin declared turkey #19 to be the winner. Turkey #19 was roasted at a blistering 500 degrees from start to finish. The critic acknowledged that while the process had made a mess of her oven and basically destroyed an enamel roasting pan, the resulting bird was a triumph! I have been a believer ever since.

My usual pattern on Thanksgiving Day is to flip on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and to get our roast beast ready to go in the oven just as Santa Claus crosses the finish line in front of the department store. Ninety smoky minutes later, dinner is ready. Now my wife, Amy, while enjoying the end result, is not a particular fan of the High Heat Turkey. In fact, she now views my roasting of the bird as a perilous variable that menaces our family celebrations. She came to this conclusion a few years ago, one rainy and cold Thanksgiving Day, when our oven produced so much spattering and smoke that we were forced to run around opening all of the windows in our house-clearing our lungs, but chilling our guests. Ever since, Amy lifts an eyebrow when I begin talking with enthusiasm about preparations for the meal, and the bird that she now calls, "The Lone Turkey of the Apocalypse." "Can't we have Thanksgiving," she asked me this past year, "without all the pyrotechnics?"

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. In my experience, many in the Church are of two minds about Advent. We like some of the symbols associated with this season. We celebrate the arrival of the Advent wreath with its four candles. We look excitedly for the appearance of evergreen boughs, trees, and poinsettias around our homes and churches as we edge closer and closer to Christmas. Yet, as much as we anticipate these markers of Advent, there are other signs of the season that hit jarring notes in us. For some, the first discordant tone is struck when the liturgical color shifts to purple or blue at the tail end of November. Then, of course, there are the Advent hymns with their sober melodies and stern admonishments. "Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand" feels far-removed from "Joy to the World." And, if the hymns aren't bad enough, along come the biblical texts for Advent. It is a shock to our holiday spirits when each year the Common Lectionary-the orderly set of readings shared by many churches throughout the world-kicks off the season of Advent with a reading from the gospels known as "the little apocalypse." It is a passage in which Jesus speaks of the end of the world. Standing in the temple not long before his crucifixion, Jesus speaks of roaring seas and nations in distress. He describes a scene in which a great earthquake shakes all of creation-a cataclysm so terrifying that people are fainting out of fear. It almost seems cruel to plunge those of us who are humming "Jingle Bell Rock" into readings that describe the end of the world. Why does the church seem so out of step when it comes to Advent? Can't we make our way toward Christmas without all the pyrotechnics?

As Advent begins, Christians are asked to set their clocks ahead, way ahead. Whirling the hands of our watches forward, our liturgy sets them ticking only after they have reached the twilight of human history. Once there, we are asked to contemplate the end of time and the promised return of Christ. The imagery of these apocalyptic texts is stark, horrifying, bigger than life. Luke speaks of sweeping destruction-natural disasters and humanitarian catastrophe. Who could possibly think that evoking these frightening images would be a good way to commence a journey toward Christmas? The whole thing seems like the spiteful act of a few grinch-like theologians who are bent on introducing cold air and smoke into our cozy holiday homes.

One of the things that scholars tell us about apocalyptic imagery is that the communities that generate these disturbing visions are usually themselves subject to tyranny and persecution. The book of Revelation in the New Testament, and the book of Daniel in the Old Testament, are the two most extensive apocalyptic works in the Bible. Both of these books were written by people who lived in countries occupied by foreign armies and their often sadistic commanders. Apocalyptic made sense to them. Those who have endured (or still endure) oppressive situations understand apocalyptic literature better than most of us. Allan Boesak, renowned South African preacher, once remarked that it made sense for him to preach on apocalyptic themes during the years of apartheid, for apocalyptic images spoke to and adequately described the lives of his listeners. Boesak's parishioners knew what it was like to live each day as if it were the end of the world. Their community had experienced appalling calamity and had witnessed evil dragons prowling in the land. When the trucks would come to surround their townships with razor wire, Boesak described them as great beasts which vomited an obscene, barbed cargo calculated to cut people off from each other and from hope. The preacher's imagery wasn't over-the-top grim for these folks, it was perhaps the only way for them to make sense of their plight in the world.

If the experience of repression and cruelty fosters apocalyptic language and imagery in a community, I wonder if the converse is true. Perhaps the fortunate circumstances of our lives are the reason that many of us have difficulty appreciating (or identifying with) apocalyptic texts. As we head into Advent yet again, we may need to be reminded that much of the world understands apocalyptic images better than we do, and we may need to come to terms with our tendency to edit out those things that we think will distract from our own happy holidays.

Dickens' classic holiday tale A Christmas Carol is a story replete with social criticism. Throughout, the author offers scathing commentary on the treatment of the poor, and harsh words for his society's failure to educate the neediest children, thus compounding the problem of poverty. The images that Dickens uses to convey his criticism are boldly unpleasant. At one point he describes craven, disturbed children with sunken cheeks clinging to the shins of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Although powerful, rarely do these most difficult bits of Dickens' masterpiece make it into our holiday productions. Perhaps we do have a tendency to edit the apocalyptic from our lives. If that is so, then perhaps Advent begins with an apocalyptic vision to jolt us out of safe isolation to plunge into the midst of a scary world. In this the vivid and frightening images of apocalyptic texts compel us to consider the ruinous power of evil and the plight of those in its terrible path.

Mention apocalyptic imagery today, and you are likely to find yourself in a conversation about one of the people who make a pretty good living publishing fictional accounts of what the end of the world will be like and when it will occur. My friend, the Reverend Bruce Buchanan, once gave me a different take on all of this. Buchanan runs the Stewpot, a vital social ministry carried on by First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas. The Stewpot provides daily meals for homeless men and a number of social services. Bruce also conducts a weekly Bible studies with the clients of the soup kitchen. These guys, Bruce once told me, know their Bible really, really well. They are especially well-versed in the apocalyptic material. Buchanan went on to tell me that a significant number of homeless men in his Bible studies had well-developed theories about how and when the world would end. Most of them thought that it would end pretty soon. It is easy to dismiss such talk as the delusions of the unbalanced, but I suspect that something else may be at play. I think these men are grappling with the very real possibility that the world for them could, in fact, end pretty soon. This is, of course, where Advent stops preaching and starts meddling, for in shocking us awake, the season aims to place us in solidarity with all of those who feel as if the end of the world is on their doorstep.

Having turned up the heat, way past 500 degrees, apocalyptic texts are not simply asking us to recognize a difficult reality. Luke's text tells us that in the midst of the terrible circumstances that apocalyptic texts describe, we are told that our posture is to be not fearful, but watchful. Luke instructs us to be vigilant in apocalyptic times, because there is more to see than death and destruction. In the midst of the apocalypse, God dwells. Christ is at the center of the chaos of this text. In this we can take comfort; we are not alone in the midst of the apocalypse. Yes, this does mean that we do not worship a Messiah who promises us one long stroll down "Easy Street." But it also means that we worship a Messiah for the real world, a turbulent, nasty world, a world in which the earth trembles, and armies march, and those who are pregnant or nursing infants fear for the future of their children.

In this, apocalyptic texts seem incredibly pertinent for our times. Apocalyptic stories look and sound a lot like the images that we see on the evening news. In this, they are shocking. But they do not stop there, the biblical images that we study at the beginning of Advent are included in our holy texts to give us hope-not hope based on ignoring the problems of the world, but hope grounded in a God who stands in the midst of these times offering us all redemption. In this, the clear assertion of Luke's Gospel is that while the powers of evil are real and terrible, they are not permanent. The only thing that endures to the very end is God's vision for humanity-a vision articulated by the prophets of old (curmudgeons like Jeremiah) who spoke words of justice, and peace, and restoration for the world.

For those of us who are convinced that the world has no business ending in earthquakes, smoke and fire when Santa has not yet arrived safely at Macy's, Advent provides an apocalyptic tonic for our spirits. Perhaps this Advent, swallowing such a tonic becomes a bit easier once we recognize that apocalyptic does not exult at presenting a disfigured world; instead, this literature encourages us to be faithful in the midst of troubled times and places where God is already at work. This is the snapshot that our liturgy would have us carry in our pockets this Advent. These texts provide us with pictures of those people who can clearly see the end of the world from where they are standing. In those pictures we can also see images of a God who is with them a God who beckons us to enter the fray with hope-filled hearts as we make our way all the way from the close of time to the manger in Bethlehem. Spinning our watches. Decorating our homes. Lighting candles. Catching a whiff of an acrid smoke that rouses our senses to a holy future.