"The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory".
So begins Mark’s Gospel for this first Sunday in Advent. The words are undeniably apocalyptic, and this is what makes them problematic, not only for those who have great difficulty believing in an apocalypse, but for many main-stream Christians, who are understandably anxious to distance themselves from lurid conceptions of ‘the Rapture’, or some such religious extreme. Warnings that 'the end of the world is nigh' are widely regarded as characteristic of Christianity's lunatic fringe, not least because, while believers have often been firmly convinced about the date of our impending end, they have invariably been wrong.
Yet, this Gospel passage can hardly be set aside. It is not the wild prediction of some eccentric Nostradamus. These are words of Jesus as recorded in the Christian Bible, and expressly appointed, in a Lectionary that the larger part of the Christian world now acknowledges and uses, to be read in public on this Sunday. So how are we to understand them?
It is perhaps best to start with this thought. Any attempt to think about time and eternity cannot avoid invoking imaginative rather than literal language. That is because it is impossible to place it within the long list of historical events. The end of all history, whatever we might mean by that expression, cannot itself be in history. So too for time’s origins. That is why long ago the realization dawned that the Genesis stories are not historical, but graphic and compelling representations of non-historical truth: time and space are the framework of God’s creation, a calling into existence of everything, whose mysterious nature science has still only penetrated to a very small degree. If we bear creation in mind, then, it is not so strange to think that God’s purpose will also bring this great cosmic experiment to a close. If so, however, we must think about the end of all things in pictures that are no less powerful.
Contrary to the opinion of its detractors, but also some of its admirers, the Bible is not a scientific text. It is a little library, a collection of books of different kinds -- history, prophecy, ethics, poetry, and story. Over a few centuries the Church forged them into a single ‘canon’, so that taken together they offer us something that even the most impressive scientific investigation cannot do, namely a religious and theological insight into the human condition – what it means to live and die as a human being comprosed of body, mind and soul.
We are clay, and God is the potter, Isaiah reminds us in this week’s Old Testament lesson. This means that both the number of our own days, and of the whole cosmos is determined in God’s good time, not in ours. Prediction is pointless, since no one – not even God the Son, today's Gospel tells us -- can put a date to its end. What is called for, therefore, is perpetual watchfulness. This is one half of the message of Advent. The other half tells us that even the end of history can be regarded with hope rather than fear. Isaiah’s compelling image of the clay and the potter is preceded by this affirmation “O LORD, you are our Father”. The implication is clear. The world, from Creation to Apocalypse, is founded not on a physical or a biological, but a personal relationship. That is the faith underlying the message of St Paul in the Epistle. Since the grace of God has already been given to us in Christ Jesus, Paul declares, we need not lack any of the spiritual gifts that will enable us to contemplate the drama of Christ’s final return.
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Christ Church Morningisde
6a Morningside Road
Edinburgh EH10 4DD
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07718 278 145
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