30 November 2018

Realized Eschatology: Embracing the Mid-Air Living of Advent (Reprised)

Almost two weeks ago (Saturday evening) my pastor and I had an email conversation about the situation in Paris and Sunday's readings which were so dramatically apocalyptic in tone and content. The underlying Theology we were both challenged by was the Johannine perspective which is sometimes called "realized eschatology" --- a term which captures the "already and the not yet" character of the world in which we live and of the Kingdom of God for which we and all of creation yearn. We recognize clearly that our world is one where Jesus' passion has "defeated death" and thus, everything has changed but at the same time we recognize that death is still with us and our world is not yet all it is meant to be; it is not yet the world in which God is "all in all."

Monks of Tibhirine
Father John shared a quote with me that Saturday evening from John Shea --- the theologian and poet whose poem on the resurrection I shared here around last Easter, (cf., After the End) John Shea speaks of "mid-air living" which is something like when a trapeze artist lets go of one bar and then --- after what seems like a long moment ---  grabs the wrists of the person catching him/her. "This life is/always will be a time of transition./ Change can be quick,/ in the “blink of an eye,”/ but transition is slow."

Thus, John began his homily with a reference to the Cirque de Soleil and drew out this image of a change that happens quickly "in the blink of an eye" but a transition that can (seemingly at least) take forever." I thought the image and Father John's use of it were truly brilliant as an illustration of the situation in which we Christians find ourselves today. In the face of the apocalyptic tone of so many of the readings over the past two weeks John Shea's reference to mid-air living and Father John's images from the Cirque de Soleil have stayed with me these last couple of weeks. That was especially true as we celebrated the Feast of Christ the King. Once again the contrast between the world of everyday reality and the world where God is sovereign in Christ, worlds which interpenetrate one another but are not yet one spoke of "mid-air living".

Today's readings underscore the same imagery and dynamic. Daniel is actually recognized as the "already but not-yet" book of the Old Testament. It speaks of two very different Kingdoms, both present in this same world of ours. One is all-too-recognizable. Originating from the four winds and drawn from the sea (a symbol of primordial chaos and too, sinful reality) are four monsters, four rulers which are "like men" or become "like men" but are characterized as less than and other than that at the same time. One has a human-like brain and is seriously smart, one is "like a bear" and characterized by his cruelty, He is a devourer of much flesh. A third is drawn as a leopard with four heads; to him all dominion is given. A fourth is very like a man but again, is not human; he is incredibly strong and arrogant.

And finally, in Daniel's picture of the world he knows, there is another truly sovereign Ruler called the Ancient One or the Ancient of Days. When thrones are set up this ruler's trappings are marked by flames and incredible whiteness --- symbols of power, judgment, mystery, life, and purity. The throne itself has "wheels of fire" --- a symbol whose meaning is now uncertain. Some say it symbolizes the notion that the throne is moveable and will no longer be in Jerusalem --- an idea supporting the notion that God will be Lord over all nations, not just Israel; others suggest that this Ruler, God's very self, has taken the throne of heaven and moved it to earth. In any case, this Ruler and his Kingdom are present alongside the "monsters" described in the first part of the lection and their Kingdoms. Daniel thus describes an ambiguous world in which there are two kinds of kingdoms, two kinds of sovereignty and even two kinds of time existing alongside one another. As Daniel puts it, the kingdoms standing in opposition to the Kingdom of the Ancient One have already been judged and the great beast (Death itself?) has been slain but, [[The other beasts, which also lost their dominion,were granted a prolongation of life for a time and a season.]]

The significant lesson in this is twofold: 1) our God is and will always be with us in the midst of this world's trials, and 2) one day God's kingdom will be established in a way which transforms us and our world completely. Judgment, the making right of all reality has begun, and we ourselves will be made truly human only in light of the sovereignty of God. In Daniel it is from the Sovereignty of the Ancient One that the Son of Man comes. Originally the term "son of man" meant one who is truly human and it had messianic connotations. Eventually, in light of the Christ Event, it came to be seen to refer to Jesus, God's anointed One. This Son of Man is seen as the  destroyer of death and the redeemer of our world, the one in whom reality is set to rights.

Today's Gospel underscores the sense that in Christ God's Kingdom has come upon us in a truly unexpected way. Jesus has been healing and preaching the Kingdom. The blind see, the deaf hear and crippled people walk because of him. But many remain blind and in bondage; many refuse to see. All the signs are that the Ancient One has "moved his throne" and Jesus iterates that people must learn to see these signs right in front of them. And of course, in a world filled with terrorism and death it is not always easy today either to see the signs that the Kingdom of God has come amongst us. It is not always easy to hold onto the hope Daniel wanted to inculcate in his own people and which Luke and John with his Gospel of "mid-air living" (realized eschatology) proclaims. It is not easy to claim the humanity which is ours in Christ who is the Son of Man so long hoped for when that contrasts so wildly with the other sovereignties of our world. The change we were looking for came quickly and definitively in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It came in wholly unexpected ways, in incarnation, powerlessness and self-emptying; in relative obscurity, poverty and shameful death. In Christ eternal death has been destroyed. Transition though takes a long time.

This weekend we begin the new liturgical year as we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent. Once again the Church offers us the chance to "begin at the beginning" and allow ourselves and our world to be further transformed by the God who has set up his throne amongst us. Today's readings remind us what Daniel and Israel hoped for, what they saw all of creation moving towards in a long moment of trial and transformation. Let us enter into this season with joy and hope as those who see reality with new eyes, the eyes of the dreamer and prophet Daniel, the eyes of Jesus whose vision is filled with the love of his Father, the eyes of those who have been made a new creation in Christ. Let us commit to working toward that day when God will be all in all.  Let us commit to being People who live fully in that long and difficult, but also joyful moment of already and not yet.