Whether celebrated as Stir-Up Sunday, as we did, or Christ the King Sunday, this past Sunday is supposed to be the Day of Judgment. Whether we think that is good or bad depends on how we think we will be judged. Back to that later. It is also the last Sunday before Advent. Christ returns to sin in judgment of the world, which leads to the calamities discussed in Revelation. After a few weeks of waiting, the world is reborn along with the Christ child, the day we call Christmas. Each year, we rehearse this cycle of ends yeilding to new beginnings, faith in the notion that we can all be born again.
Because this is the end, our faith naturally turns to eschatology, the study of the end time. Growing up in a conserving tradition, we spoke a lot of the end times. Specifically, the Rapture of all good Christians into Heaven before the Time of Tribulation, when all the wrath of Revelation will come to bear on the poor lost souls left on Earth. If you want to know more about the Rapture, please join us for Sunday School, where we are reading The Rapture Exposed, by Barbara Rossing. Frankly, I think Rapture theology is silly, but now that I’m out of the grip of fear from watching A Thief in the Night as a child, I’ve started to appreciate eschatology more.
I love apocalyptic movies, but most of them these days seem to be all about the devastation of the event that requires starting over. Whether it’s zombies or aliens or environmental crisis, the focus is on surviving the calamity. Sometimes, depending on the format, there will be a hint of what the time after the end looks like. A group of plucky survivors beginning again after learning the lessons. Through the calamity, they become the people they should have been all along, people who might have avoided the calamity if they had just had the imagination to be those people without the calamity.
Eschatology is a thought experiment. We imagine a future, probably an impossible future. The more impossible the better. We know we can’t have that world. Or, at least, we don’t have that world now and we suspect we never can. It would require us to learn the lessons, to become the people who have learned the lessons. We suspect we can’t learn the lessons without the calamity, but I wonder if we can.
Imagine a future in which all people are reconciled to one another, to the Earth, and to God. There is no division or strife, only peace won by compassion and kindness. What would it take to have that world? Can it be taken by force? Can we simply dominate those who are resistant? I suspect that, in doing so, we would become precisely the opposite of people who are ruled by compassion and kindness. And yet, in a world where people are manifestly ruled by things other than compassion and kindness, how do we nurture them to shine through?
This is the thought experiment of Advent. It is a time of awareness of the ends of things and a hope for what comes next. It is a time of patience and preparation, waiting and rest. But it is an active rest. Though the new beginning is a time of hope, it will not be without it’s challenges. It, too, will yield to its own end. So, though we celebrate Advent only once a year, it is practice for the rest of the time, the time in between, the time in between the already and the not yet. It is a time to cultivate our character, so that we can recognize the dawn when it comes, so that we will be ready to respond in kindness and compassion, to live in peace with all.
With that in mind, we’re trying something new with Advent. Revelation has become the quintessential text on the end times for Christians. However, we usually misread it by assuming that we are the protagonists of the story. The Day of Judgment is no longer a day of terror as the prophets promised because we assume we will be judged well. Those with whom we disagree are the ones who should be afraid.
Most often, the purveyors of Rapture theology are the privileged, so the Rapture becomes the last great hope of the privileged where we get to jetpack out of here before all of “those people” endure the suffering they certainly deserve. But Revelation was written by the oppressed for the oppressed over against the oppressor. We should ask who we are in this story. If you’re a straight, white man like me, you’re probably the oppressor. You’re the Whore of Baylon. You’re the Beast. The Seven Seals are coming for you.
Instead, we’re going to try to rediscover the power dynamics of eschatological texts by reading them alongside modern speculative fiction, apocalyptic literature written by marginalized people. How do they imagine the future? Where is their hope? How do they get there? I’ll be reading the Lillith’s Brood Trilogy by Octavia Butler, the Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemison, and something by Samuel Delaney. We may also screen some Afrofuturist films, such as Sun Ra’s Space is the Place or Brother from Another Planet.
I’m honestly not sure how this is going to come out. I’ve never read this stuff before. However, I do know that my imagination expands when I see what people unlike myself have imagined. We’re all trying to negotiate the living in between. If we want to come out of it ruled by kindness and compassion, we have to practice listening to one another, trying to see through one another’s eyes, as impossible as that might be.