The “Little Apocalypse” of Advent

Exhortation Becomes Proclamation, of How our Lives in Christ are Finally Enough

Jeff Hual / 12.3.20

I still recall the first time my parents let me go to summer camp with my best friend. Neither I nor my parents understood what this particular summer camp was really all about. All we saw in the brochure was horseback riding and a big swimming pool, so I was very excited, until the first evening when they rolled out the movie projector to show us a movie. That movie was the 1972 film, “A Thief in the Night,” which among other films introduced the controversial ideas of rapture theology into the pop culture of the day. Scenes of people disappearing, a pot left boiling on the stove, a borrowed stick of butter dropped and melting in the driveway, and then evil taking over the world — it was more than my eleven-year-old imagination could handle. I don’t think I slept much for the rest of the week, and I was very glad when my parents showed up to take me home. There was a small part of me that worried they weren’t here anymore, that the rapture had happened and I was one of the ones left behind. Leave it to a child’s imagination always to imagine the worst case.

The gospel readings for the first Sunday of Advent each year form part of the basis for rapture theology. These passages, which occur with slight variations in all three of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), are known as the “little apocalypse,” the “great apocalypse” of course being the Revelation of John. Both of these have their basis in the great apocalypse of the Hebrew Bible, that of the prophet Daniel. Rapture theology tends to draw from all three of these sources, but there’s a problem for this rapture theology: Jesus leaves the events leading up to his return as ambiguous, at best. The sun and the moon darken, stars fall from the sky, and the Son of Man appears in glory (Mk 13:24-27). While this can sound like scary stuff if we read too closely, they are really meant to be symbolic signs of the imminent return of the Son of Man, and nothing more.

What, then, are we to make of Jesus’ little apocalypse in light of Advent, which is a time when we need to be asking ourselves, how are we putting our trust in Christ concerning the last things? How are we moving beyond our fears and preparing ourselves to behold the savior?

Because that savior has come, that savior will come again, and we want to be ready for him.

The Advent season is widely regarded as a time of preparation, and most folks assume that this preparation is somehow a preparation for Christmas and the coming of the Christ child, but it’s not. Advent is a time when we prepare for the second coming of Christ in light of his first coming. In this, we have a continuation of the themes that we as the Church visit each November, but now it is different. Unlike November, when we were concerned with the saints, and all the faithful departed, and the King of Kings seated at the right hand of the Father, now we consider aspects of the end of time that are not so warm and fuzzy. Christ’s first coming reckons us righteous, and we can be assured of that status when he comes again to judge the world.

Advent isn’t shepherds and wise men. It isn’t a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. It is cosmic signs and portents that may be anything but comfortable for us. Perhaps it is meant as a wakeup call.

We get so hung up in the mundane tasks of our day-to-day lives (even in a stay-at-home pandemic) that we aren’t really spending much time preparing for this King who is coming. So we need this time of Advent each year to prepare ourselves anew for the return of Christ, even as (especially as) we prepare for the celebration of his first coming. That’s why this consideration of “last things” might appear to crash our holiday plans, why it is seeking to break into all our preparations for the events of the Christmas season, because it matters.

There is a reason the Gospels made sure to record these sayings of Jesus, and it is tied to those people who even today claim to know the date the world will end. People get scared, but then that date passes with no result. Calculations are run again and a new date set, but then that one comes and goes and everyone is still here.

Would you believe that these modern-day doomsayers are simply a continuation of a phenomenon that runs all the way back to a time before the Gospels were written? The early church had taken some of the texts from Daniel, and had decided that the second coming would occur within one generation of the life of Christ, so at some point before 60 CE. Yet even as early as Mark’s Gospel was written, which was most likely sometime around 70 CE, it was already more than one generation beyond Jesus’ lifetime. The Son of Man had not returned and the naysayers were starting to do exactly what we do today with the doomsayers. They were pointing and laughing, and so the doomsayers were checking their numbers and trying again. Some things never change.

We should always remember, though, that we call this Gospel good news, and the Gospel writers recording these sayings from Jesus are not trying to scare us, they’re really actually seeking to reassure us. Jesus tells us that no one knows the time, not even the Son of Man; only the Father knows when it will happen. So the doomsayers will always be wrong, and Jesus reassures us that there is nothing that we have to do that will affect the outcome of the second coming or our place in it. What he is about to do on the Cross, and our faith in that one act, is the only deciding factor. Beyond this, all Jesus is calling us to do is to be watchful and to believe what he said, that someday he will return and will make all things new.

What’s the difference between that interpretation of such passages and the interpretations given by the fear-mongers and the doomsayers?

As Dave Zahl would say, real religion is about proclamation, not exhortation. Any if-then statement under which we have been told we have to live our lives — that’s an exhortation. Real Christianity isn’t about if-then statements, though. It is instead about seeing Christ as the ultimate justification of our lives, one that comes not through what we do but through what Christ has already done, so that there is finally no exhortation under which we are living our lives.

Instead, what was once exhortation becomes proclamation, of how our lives in Christ are finally enough. The fear-mongers have the apocalyptic readings from the Gospels exhorting us by saying, “If you don’t get your lives right with God, then you will be left behind.” But Jesus is encouraging us in such passages not to be fearful.  He is telling us that our loving Father has already determined the outcome, so trust in Christ that it will work out just as it was always meant to. Such a message of hope is what we as the people of God are actually called to proclaim in Advent, not as an exhortation but as pure proclamation, as we watch and wait, confidently and expectantly, for the promised return of the Lord.