Two-Fold Hope: A (Pen)Ultimate Vision for Advent

When Gabriel Fackre wrote his essay on Advent in 1983, the doomsday clock was at four minutes to midnight.[1] We now sit nervously at two-and-a-half minutes to 12. Like many people, a chord of anxiety strikes me each year when world experts declare that we have sufficiently screwed up God’s good creation such that we are incrementally closer to a globally destructive event. (My apologies to all you Hegelians who insist upon the progressive nature of human history. You’re wrong.) The vision we have before us looks bleak – and frankly, it is the fault of this “dirty, rotten system,”[2] those privileged few who rule at its apex, and all of us who hold up this destructive system.

But Fackre’s essay prods us in the ribs as we sit in despair. He argues that Advent is predominantly a season of vision and hope. While most of us are beleaguered by organizations (among which churches are the worst culprits) who toss out lovely terms like “vision” and “hope” like candy canes at a Christmas parade, it is perhaps worth turning to what is at the heart of those signifiers in relation to the Christian faith.

“Vision defines reality in the Advent lectionary,” Fackre writes.[3] I daresay that we could expand this to the entire Christian understanding of reality. Behind our commitment to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves – whatever the cost of this just, merciful love may be – is the understanding that we frankly do not have demonstrable proof that this is the best way to live. In fact, this ethical vision has gotten more than a few people martyred. However, most of those martyrs would be quick to remind us that we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7). Despite the rather pious ring to these words, their lives (and deaths) are expressive of its inherent danger. (After all, Christ does not offer us respite – He offers us resurrection.)

In Advent, while the lectionary pelts us with one apocalyptic text after another, we are confronted with this faithful vision of reality. While our eyes tell us that 2,000 youth will sleep homeless on the streets of Toronto tonight, the Church’s preparation for God’s own homeless birth informs us that this is neither acceptable within God’s penultimate historical vision of hope, nor the ultimate divine eschatological promise. While the rulers of nations measure each other up for conflict, God promises both a worldly and an ultimate shalom which wages war on war. Despite cultural trends, the vision we encounter in Advent isn’t a cozy Norman Rockwell Christmas scene nor an escapist vision that the Almighty will whisk us away into the clouds to sing “Angels We Have Heard on High” with the heavenly host. This Advent vision is one that defines the penultimate mission of the Body of Christ with the assurance that ultimate eschatological promise is well taken care of in crucified hands.

It is this ultimate vision – the vision we meet in a bloody and screaming newborn in a Judean cattle trough – which sets the agenda for the Body of Christ. This vision is none other than the upside-down Kingdom of God which this Expected One will be anointed to proclaim. And just as these biblical prophecies we will read recount how a people languished in expectation for the coming of the penultimate Promised One, Christians now look backward and ahead for the Glory of Jesus Christ to fill this world with justice, mercy, and majesty – once and for all.

Lest we think that we can determine the content of this Reign of God on our own or that we can even bring it into being by our own good works, Karl Barth reminds us that “when Christian theologians wished to sketch a theology of God the Creator abstractly and directly, they have always gone astray, even when in tremendous reverence they tried to think and speak of this high God.”[4] Rather, Barth insists that the seat of this vision to which we explicitly turn our faces in Advent is found nowhere other than in the very life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is by this life – a life accessed by faith and discipleship – that the rest of this cold and dark reality is illumined with light far greater than our Advent candles. The ultimate, eschatological vision is thrust into historical reality in the crudeness of the cradle and exposed with ferocious vulgarity in the cruelty of the cross. The Eternal becomes finite so that from womb to tomb, this vision made flesh might import a far-off eschatology into an historical ethics of the Church.[5]

Yet while we are called to a life of costly discipleship – not in an abstract sense: we very well might be imprisoned, ruined, or killed – a crucial portion of the promise we remember at Advent is that we are unable to build this Kingdom on our own. Heaven, earth, and all the things we have done and built in them will pass away during the Ultimate In-Breaking (Mk 13:31-33) and assumed into the realized vision of shalom which Christ ushers in by the Holy Spirit. This is far stronger than any doomsday clock, and potentially more disconcerting. But we cannot deny that it is good.

Thus, the nature of the Advent preparations we prattle on about is given a deeper, richer, more complicated, more gracious meaning. All of our preparations are for the Ultimate Vision which Christ was anointed to proclaim, and it is this Ultimate Vision that He will return to establish. This is why Advent is such a vital corrective to wishful Christian escapism that simply trusts that God will somehow do our discipleship for us (let us remember Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31)), or the strain of Christianity with which I identify that all-too-often acts as though we are the world’s saviours and that the Kingdom is within our grasp by our own hard work. Rather, Advent plunges us into the two-fold hope of glory: an historical vision of shalom which the Law, the Prophets, and our Saviour express with radiant clarity; and the Ultimate Vision of God – this eschatological Kingdom – inaccessible by our own works and unmerited by our own sin, yet lavishly opened to us through grace. It is a vision to which our penultimate vision and our fragile lives are to conform.

Our Advent preparation, then, is not to blow past this introspective, penitential season of preparation in our sprint to the glory of the manger. It is to conform to that Ultimate Vision in faith and to pray for the return of our King.

 

[1] Gabriel Fackre, “Vision of Shalom and Hope of Glory” in Social Themes of the Christian Year: A Commentary on the Lectionary. ed. Dieter T. Hessel. (Philadelphia: Geneva Press, 1983), 32-39.

[2] Dorothy Day,  as quoted in Women on War: Essential Voices for the Nuclear Age. ed. Daniela Gioseffi. (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1988), 103.

[3] Fackre, 33.

[4] Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline. trans. G.T. Thomson. (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 65.

[5] Fackre, 36.