Tuesday, November 15, 2011

First Sunday of Advent Year B

First Sunday of Advent Year B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Isaiah 64: 1-9; Psalm 80: 1-7, 16-18; I Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13: 24-37

The Book of Isaiah concludes by recalling two distinct and contradictory traits of God's behavior: when God reveals God's-Self, it is the equivalent of creation erupting-- "mountains quake" "fire kindles;"-- yet, this same God "works for those who remember [this God] and who wait...."  "You meet those who gladly do right..." is the biblical testimony.  When this God "hid," however, we all became "like one who is unclean, and all righteous deeds are like filthy cloth."  Our lives "fade like a leaf" and our "iniquities" blow us away with the wind.  In such terrible times, "no one" calls "on your name, or attempts to take hold of you...."  Despite such dire developments, there is a "YET;"  "Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand."  Do not stay "angry" and always remember "we are your people."

Alluding to a formative event in Israel's past-- when Joseph and his brothers re-established Israel-- the psalmist pleads to the Lord as Israel's "Shepherd" who also is "enthroned on the cherubim" for a new, similar event; a new son descended from these ancient tribes to "bring us back." 

Paul begins his difficult letter to this church in Corinth by recalling the core meaning of their identity: "the grace of God that has been given to you in Christ Jesus." Your self-understanding and all that you are counting on to get you through "to the end" is based on the life-giving words and works of Christ.  "God is faithful...."  God "called us into the fellowship..." created by the "Son, Christ our Lord."

Given the repeated conquests, rebellions, pogroms, and the mass death of thousands with the destruction and desecration of the Temple by the Greeks and then the Romans over the previous two hundred years, we should be surprised if we did not find a rich tradition of "apocalyptic" writings, including the gospels and Paul's letters!  Drawing literally and figuratively from the books of Isaiah, Daniel, Zechariah and Deuteronomy, Mark's narrative depicts the appearance"In those days"  of "the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory." We must live as if this life-altering event could occur at any second because no one knows or can know when it can happen. The narrative posits two contradictory statements; on the one hand, "this generation will not pass away," on the other hand, "no one knows when this will happen." Consider this scenario: a boss entrusts to you everything valuable to her while she is away; you will need to keep one eye focused on what you are responsible for and another on her return, which could be awhile or immediately, you have no way of knowing.  "Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come."

Among writers regarded as postmodern, attempts to characterize how we understand ourselves pay attention to the emotional, psychological, spiritual or affective aspects of our make-up, not just our thinking capacity, (Descarte's cogito). Michel Foucault insists that any self-understanding "of ourselves must be considered not, certainty, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating: it must be conceived as an attitude, an ethos..." (quoted in Blackwell's Companion to Postmodern Theology, Graham Ward, ed. p. 87)

Mark is not concerned in this critical passage with "theology" or any other kind of conceptualizing. He rejects speculative thinking about God's ways. He is instead focused on our attitude to life. He tells us to live in a permanent state of alertness to the possibility that everything that we regard as important and stationary could be lost at any second. We should regard whatever time we think we have as temporary, borrowed. We are to be alert, engaged, vigilant, not sleep-waking through life. Live with one eye on our immediate responsibilities and the other prepared to see when it could all end. Life is not a rehearsal!

Like some mighty double fugue, the scriptures weave together two dominant melodies and improvise on them endlessly:  human-made time --hour, day, week, month year, era, a single life-time--  juxtaposed with God's "time," which is always an EVENT-- an irruption/disruption/course correction/revelation/fresh start.  John Caputo considers both of these senses of "time," when he writes:  "The time of the world is the sort of time that you can count, the time you can count on, the sort that economics depends upon; it is regular and reliable enough for us to calculate.... Ticktock, ticktock."  (The Weakness of God: A Theology of Event, p. 162)  By contrast, Caputo continues: "The coming of the kingdom is not a matter of prediction or prophesying some coming event off in a dark and unknown future."  Rather: "The kingdom is already in us and something we are already in.  The time of the kingdom is today, now, already."  "God rules now, in Jesus, who says that the kingdom  is upon us."  (p.167)