Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Second Sunday in Advent, Part II

Owing to its splendid Proper Collect, this second Sunday in Advent has come to be known as “Bible Sunday,” While most Collects are more ancient, this one was an original composition by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the compiler of the first Prayer Book of 1549. It was based on the opening text of today's Epistle: “Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning.” Advent is a good time to form a New Year's resolution to read the Bible more diligently. So we will learn the truth, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.”

But the original significance of this Sunday, as set forth in the appointed Gospel, is rather different. The message of Christ's final coming at the end of history is ratcheted up to a louder volume. “And then they shall see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” This takes place in a context of distress of nations, with men's hearts failing them for fear. Christ will not come into a serene or perfect world, but into the final catastrophe brought down by the tragedy of sin.

The almost final verse of today's Gospel is puzzling: “This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled.” Many have concluded that either Jesus or the Gospel-writer was flatly mistaken, as the final coming in glory did not take place within that narrow time-frame. But this text makes excellent sense if we understand the principle of double fulfilment, so frequently the case with Biblical prophecy. If we open our Bibles, and read the preceding verses, not printed in our Prayer Books, we see instantly that Jesus was predicting first of all the destruction of Jerusalem, which indeed occurred in A.D. 70 at the hands of the Romans. “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near” (Lk 21:20). This Roman devastation took place, exactly as Jesus said it would, within the life span of His audience. But what becomes clear on reflection is that the catastrophe of A.D. 70 turns out to be a foreshadowing of future events on a far greater scale. As the history of Israel ended in catastrophe, all earthly history will end in tragedy. The “generation” ultimately is the whole body of those elect who are His t people through “regeneration.” This “blessed company of all faithful people” will not pass away: the Church of Jesus Christ, no matter how battered and reduced by the bruises of history, will not disappear from the scene before Jesus comes again.

As Jerusalem was surrounded by Roman armies nearly 2,000 years ago, so our Jerusalem is encircled by hostile forces, neo-pagan culture, moral chaos, and militant unbelief. So Christ's message still remains: “Look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.” This Gospel of hope is no easy or comfortable religion, but a message of victory which defies all evidence.

No comments:

Post a Comment