Let the Scriptures Speak
Between Two Advents
Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. (Luke 21:34).
What a difference a storm makes. I awoke some years ago to see the deck railings outside my window sporting eight inches of wet snow. When I got out from under the covers, stood up in the chill of the room and looked out into the yard, I found that the same eight inches of snow had also devastated our trees. Still fully in leaf after a moist and gentle Autumn, their branches had caught and held all that snow, and a third of the limbs had broken under the weight. Above them, other branches as yet unbroken swayed slowly under their burden like enormous heads of white elephants feeding on the chaos of vegetation strewn under their feet.
Over the radio came the news that fallen trees and branches had taken down power lines all over town, leaving fully 100,000 households without electric power. Somehow we on our hilltop were spared.
Ready or not, storms come and do their thing. The poetry of apocalypse capitalizes on this fact of nature. Such imagery has more to do with vulnerability and unpredictability than with clues to the schedule of the coming end.
When Luke presents his version of Jesus' end-time discourse, he makes his own interpretive adjustments. Whereas Mark has Jesus speaking of the End to a private audience of four on Mount Olivet, Luke has Jesus speak these words publicly, in the Temple precincts. The king who must be about his Father's business has taken possession of the Temple area and has commenced teaching “all the people.” Further, Luke has chosen to underscore the theme of the “time between”—what to do until the unpredictable End finally comes. Here, the destruction of the Temple (which did occur forty years after the crucifixion) is no longer closely linked to the Second Coming. Luke provides an ending that includes practical advice—the words quoted at the head of this reflection.
How do such words fit the First Sunday of Advent? They are out of sync with every other time structure in our lives—the academic semester, the fiscal year, the twelve-month calendar, the cycle of the sports seasons—and yet they come as the beginning of the Church Year. This reminds us that we live out our faith lives in a time frame that is similarly “out of sync” with how most of the world calculates the movements of nature and history. Our “big picture” is anchored firmly between the first and second advents of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man. Just as we ended the Church Year with the theme of The First Sunday of Advent C of all kings (The Solemnity of The First Sunday of Advent C), so we begin the new liturgical cycle with the cosmic theme of the Second Coming of Christ that will complete the movement initiated by the first coming.
Meanwhile, Luke couches Jesus' advice for the “time between” in words very carefully chosen. “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy [barethosin] … ” The sense of that Greek verb is literally to be weighed down; Luke uses the same word to describe the numbed disciples at the Transfiguration, and in Matthew it describes the eyes of the disciples losing watchfulness in Gethsemane. What causes this heaviness of heart? Kraipale, “carousing and its result, hangover”— used only here in the New Testament. Another cause of that weighed-down heart is merimnais biotikais, “biotic worries*—as in worrying about legal defense (Lk 12:11), or how to lengthen your life (Lk 12:25)—exactly the kind of thing that chokes the seed of the word of God and keeps it from maturing in one's life (Lk 8:14).
And what is the antidote to such numbness and drowsiness of heart, “Be watchful (Agrypneite).” Be watchful for signs and cues regarding the end-time schedule? No. It is the watchfulness that accompanies prayer and leads to timely action.
Years ago—I think it was the summer the Gulf Coast was pounded by hurricane Camille—I recall reading a newspaper account about a group of people in Biloxi who disregarded calls to evacuate and chose instead to “ride out” the storm by having a party in their hotel room. The wind and waters came and took them under.
As we begin another Liturgical Year, the Church uses texts that call us to watchfulness. Jeremiah points to the time that has already begun, the first advent of the shoot of David who “shall do what is right and just in the land”—a coming we recognize as occurring two millennia ago. And the words of Paul to the Christians at Thessalonica look to the second advent when we will be present “before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.”
Paul says the best preparation for that advent is hearts strengthened through love of one another.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
**From Saint Louis University