St. Augustine’s Episcopal Parish, November 29, 2015
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 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 21:34-36
A few years ago, we had a young professional in our midst with an unusual family of origin story. She shared that when she was a young teenager in 1994, the oldest in a large family, her father had become so convinced about a specific date and time for Jesus’ return that he had quit his job, he and her mother had stopped enrolling their kids in school, and they had completely neglected the basics of life such as doing laundry and buying food as the date approached. When the fateful day finally arrived and the countdown began to the hour the father had calculated based on his precise reading of biblical prophecy, the family was gathered together in the living room to pray and sing songs so that Jesus, upon his return, might find them alert and ready to stand before him, just like today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke instructs the faithful to do. Of course, despite the faithful and fervent expectation of the parents and the children, the hour came and went, Jesus did not return, and they were left staring at each other across an awkwardly silent living room.
This sort of thing is not unique to this family’s experience. People have been issuing precise predictions about the end times for generations, all with disappointing results. The most recent such prediction to get widespread attention was back in 2011 when the late radio evangelist, Harold Camping, predicted that the rapture would take place on May 21, 2011. There were billboards right here in Phoenix warning us of this “Judgment Day,” if you remember.
Now, the vast majority of people who believe that the Bible accurately predicts specific future events do not subscribe to these types of pinpointed interpretations. They see them much like I imagine you and I do, as rather foolish and arrogant, and often painful and destructive, as it was for the young woman’s family in the aftermath of that day in 1994. But is the attempt to match apocalyptic events with specific dates and times the only problem with this manner of interpretation? As long as we don’t name so precisely the timeframe in which these events will take place, is it appropriate to read passages like today’s Gospel as instructions for the end of the world? And if not, what’s the alternative? How else are we to read biblical prophecy?
It’s here that the Season of Advent comes to our rescue. Advent, the most apocalyptic season in the Church Year, offers us another way to approach the prophecies of the Bible. Advent at once commemorates the fulfillment of prophecies in the past while pointing towards their ongoing fulfillment throughout time. The liturgies and readings during Advent refer to the One who is coming both to Bethlehem and on “that day.” As our collect for this First Sunday of Advent states, “now in the time of this mortal life” Christ “visit[s] us in great humility,” and “in the last day” Christ “shall come again in his glorious majesty.” These prophetic images of Christ are all held up at one and the same time during Advent, blurring the lines between past, present, and future.
It might be helpful here to review what I offered last week about the work of the biblical prophets. I said that prophets speak for God from the perspective of eternity, that is, from God’s vantage point, which is broader and less fixed within space and time than ours. I offered that these words from God are largely concerned with power relationships and are almost always good news for those without power but not so good for those who benefit from the status quo. The prophets show from God’s vantage point that the structures and means of power holding sway in the world are not the final story. There is another story being told. It is whispered behind and before, above and beneath, to the right and to the left of the dominant story. It’s the story we hear from the prophets during this Season of Advent, the story of Christ, the always Coming One.
“O come, O come Emmanuel.” The verses that comprise our Church’s most beloved and familiar Advent hymn tell this story in an ancient poetic fashion. The seven verses of this hymn, Hymn # 56 in our hymnal, if you would like to take a look, are known as the “O Antiphons.” The O Antiphons are seven great christological poems sung since the 9th Century in the monasteries of the West. These poems have been chanted for more than 1,200 years as antiphons before and after the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, during Evening Prayer in the week leading up to Christmas. The O Antiphons point to seven grand archetypes for Christ drawn from the prophetic tradition of the Bible:
O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
O Adonai (O Lord)
O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
O Clavis David (O Key of David)
O Oriens (O Dayspring)
O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)
O Emmanuel (O God with us)
Notice with me the posture that these poems assume, a posture of invocation and request. The antiphons are calling upon these seven great prophetic archetypes to be manifest in our midst as we approach the Mystery of the Incarnation at the Feast of the Nativity.
Notice with me as well that their role in the life of the community is liturgical. They function within the prayers to shape and form spiritually the lives of those who pray. This offers us some insight to help answer our question about how to read biblical prophecy. The Church has historically understood the prophetic word to be most at home in the words of prayer. When we pray the prophets we put into practice a theological principle at the heart of the Anglican tradition, lex orandi, lex credendi, praying shapes believing. In other words, theological beliefs are formed from our practice of prayer and not the other way around. We don’t get all of our beliefs in order so that we can pray in response to those beliefs. We pray in order to shape our categories and cultivate our capacity to believe. This is why the defining document of our tradition is not a confession or a treatise or a doctrinal statement; it is a Book of Common Prayer.
It should make perfect sense to us as Anglicans, then, that when we hear the prophets through the formative intentions of liturgical prayer we are more likely to open ourselves to the wisdom deep within their words and experience the healing and wholeness those words inspire. When the prophetic word is completely divorced from its liturgical home, however, it should come as little surprise when it is quickly subjected to foolish and arrogant interpretations that lead to ongoing pain and destruction.
The prophets, when read and sung in the course of our prayers, become truly knowledgeable guides to help us along our way. The prophetic voices of Advent, freed from being locked in place on a static timeline, accompany us on a journey through our inner landscape to the places where Christ has come, is coming, and always will come among us.
While everyone was expecting God’s “glorious majesty” to descend from heaven and result in a dramatic transformation of everything once and for all, Jesus inaugurated a slow transformation of the world from the inside out. That transformation continues today in every heart and in every community that heeds the prophets’ voice and prepares a home to welcome the always coming One over and over and over again.