This week, the much of the news has focused on the world coming to an end. If we are not worried enough over the alleged fiscal cliff that could change the American economy as we know it for generations to come, to add to the stress of all the dooms day news, the Mayan calendar ended on Friday, sending many into a tail spin as they assumed the end of the world was upon us.
I have to admit, there was a part of me that was sort of wondering if the world would end, and frankly, I gave serious consideration to holding off writing my homilies for this morning and Christmas until Saturday, but figured it was best to be prepared if the end did not come.
As a Christian people, we are no strangers to worrying about the end of the world. The four Sundays of Advent are all about the world to come, the end time, or as we refer to it in theological terms, the reign of God.
I suspect many of us maintain some sense of anxiety when speaking about the end time. Popular writing for centuries has stressed the cataclysmic changes that will take places as we await the day when the heavenly dominions will destroy the forces of evil that have inhabited creation since the beginning of time. In the garden of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City is a large brass statue that depicts the gory image of the archangel Michael destroying Satan. To add to our violent images of the apocalypse, Tim Lahaye’s Left Behind series journeyed the reader through what a modern day divine apocalypse may look like. And, finally, it does not help that the Gospels add to our anxiety with Jesus speaking about the separation of the sheep and the goats as well as telling us that we will know the time is near when major climatic events take place.
John Dominic Crossan, in his book, The Greatest Prayer, states that this image of cataclysmic destruction and doom may not be in sync with the intent of the ancient authors. Instead, ancient Jewish understanding of the apocalypse was more about the peaceful transformation of the world. It is a movement within creation that leads us away from the violent tendencies that are ingrained in humanity towards a world that is dominated by divine justice and peace.
As I have followed the news of the past week, I believe we have begun to witness Dr. Crossan’s hypothesis in action. Since the massacre in Sandy Hook a week ago Friday, there is no doubt the conversation about gun control has reached a tipping point. Many of the staunchest supporters of the second amendment now agree, our freedom to bare arms needs to be more narrowly defined. For the first time in decade, a civil discourse has begun around the issues of gun control and mental health as a way of scratching at the surface as to the cause of American violence today. Where this conversation may lead is still unknown, but it is a first step towards stemming the violence that has become so much apart of our American culture.
This nascent discourse also demonstrates how evil, to the very end will use darkness and violence to advance its will, while the divine creator’s will is accomplished through non-violence, and most importantly, through our cooperation.
In this morning’s gospel, we heard the conversation that took place between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. Both women are pregnant with children destined to be voices of the will of God. What we did not hear this morning was the annunciation when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would give birth to the anointed Son of God. The part of the story that is over looked and often assumed is Mary’s willingness to bear the child. Christian writers since the time of St. Paul have asserted that the greatest gift God bestowed upon creation was free will. We have to assume both Mary and Elizabeth willingly accepted the role God granted them in the history of salvation.
A second point Dr. Crossan makes in his book, The Greatest Prayer, is that the difference between the teachings of Jesus and that of previous prophets is the fact Jesus does not claim the Kingdom will come as a violent wave that washes away the evil empire of the day. Instead, Jesus proclaims that the Kingdom of God is already present. Not only does Jesus teach that the Kingdom is present through him but through each of us. During the fourth century, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo when discussing the coming of the Kingdom wrote, “God without us, will not; as we without God cannot. What both are telling us is that humanity is called to serve as co-creators of the reign of God. I realize the concept of being co-creators with God is foreign to us. Since the beginning of time, the Judeo/Christian understanding of creation was simply as an act of God and by God alone. This understanding is in contrast with many of the non-Judeo/Christian understandings of creation. For example, in Native American tradition, as well as some African traditions, humanity is created at the beginning of Genesis and works with God in the creating of the rest of the earth. With this in mind, it becomes less difficult for us to accept that at some point in history God invites us to be part of the creative process.
For the nearly nine and a half years I have been at St. Luke’s, I have often shared Heidegger’s understanding of God as Being and we as the emanations of that being. As children of God we are given the ability to accept or reject the divine which emanates within us. In today’s Gospel, both Mary and Elizabeth celebrate their opportunity to work directly with God. Later in Luke’s Gospel, Elizabeth’s husband, Zachariah, celebrates John the Baptist’s birth with the words, “you shall be called the prophet of the most High” as he foretells the role John will have in God’s plan. Mary, upon greeting her cousin, celebrates her pregnancy with the words of the Magnificat. Through her song of joy, Mary not only celebrates her role as a handmaid of the Lord, she also celebrates the kingdom she will literally give birth to.
This new kingdom, the Kingdom of God, she sings, is totally different than the world she lives in. This new reign will be a place where the lowly are lifted up and the proud are scattered in their conceit. This new reign, as one writer states, will be the world celebrated at Carnival, a world that is opposite from what we know today. It will be a world that is ruled by divine justice and peace, not fear, injustice and violence. It will be the world where as Isaiah tells us the child shall play with the adder, and the lamb shall lay with the lion.
However, as Luke tells us through Mary and Elizabeth, the kingdom that we have longed for these 2000 plus years cannot become a reality without our cooperation and commitment. At Baptism, we acknowledge and bare witness to the divine that resides in each of us. Through Baptism, we committed our souls and bodies to the re-creation of the world. And with God, together, the reign is among us, ready to transform the world.