Luke 21:25-36 (NRSV)
The Coming of the Son of Man
25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Exhortation to Watch
34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Advent is the time in the church calendar given over to the practice of waiting. In Advent, the Church does not rush to get to the momentous occasion of Jesus’s incarnation. This season forces us in the 21st century to practice the patience of Israel embodied in preparing for the coming of their Messiah.* Some traditions mark the progression of Advent using a wreath, each candle a representation of one implication of the waiting story. The first week of Advent is given over to joy.
Read the passage again. There doesn’t seem to be a great amount of joy in this week’s Gospel reading. Judgment comes very clearly to the forefront. However, it is not a general and vague sense of finger-wagging and condemnation. Jesus explicitly speaks within the context of the temple’s and Jerusalem’s destruction…while he is in the Jerusalem temple. Pause for a minute. Don’t lose sight of the irony of this passage.
The disciples ask Jesus what signs are to come which will demonstrate the approach destruction. Wrapped up in all of this, then, is a masterstroke of Jesus; acting as prophet, he speaks to the coming day when the Son of Man returns. Jesus speaks to a new Advent.
However, what is there about joy? The coming of the Son of Man, removed from the broader context of this passage, seems like an extraordinary joyous occasion. However, even at a cursory reading reveals that, as a sign of his approach, the very spheres of creation will rage and proclaim to the “redemption which is drawing near.” People will faint from fear. Moreover, Jesus tells his disciples, after speaking further to the sign of the times, as akin to a fig tree producing its fruit, that they are alert, that they might be on guard, and have sufficient strength to escape all these things (presumably the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem).
Jesus just doesn’t seem to get the kind of joy we are after this week. Moreover, I think that is kind of the point.
In the modern West, with pleasure (and all other things) at our fingertips, “joy” is delivered instantaneously. It does not come in the form of signs pointing to what we need (even if we do not think we need it). Moreover, it certainly doesn’t come with the expectation that there will be some amount of time involved. Rather, I want to suggest that Jesus, as the full revelation of God and true humanity, is whom we look to, and in that begin to understand in our own lives and communities what is meant by joy. We only ever understand what joy means by being constituted by a situating in Christ, which gives us, the Church, the capacity to call joy joy when we see it.
I want to close by suggesting what Jesus might mean by joy in this passage. Joy is the expectation of waiting in patience. It is an expectation, yes, that comes packaged with judgment and destruction. Do not lose sight of this. Yet it is an expectation of the second coming of the Son of Man, the redemption of the world and the whole of humanity, including you and me. Moreover, the only way you can have a second coming if you have had a first. Patience constitutes the very heart of what it means to be a joyful people. Because as Jesus himself notes, his words, his proclamation, will remain standing while heaven and earth give way.** This is the good news of Advent, the joy of patience: that we wait for the second coming of Christ, our redemption, so that we may see without a dark mirror; and that we rejoice by waiting to celebrate his first coming, into human flesh, his incarnation, so that he might patiently and with great joy bear with and for us, for the sake of our lives. God, in Jesus, has chosen to never be except to be with us.*** Now that is worth giving thanks for! That is worth a joyful noise!
Incarnation by Amit Majmudar
Inheart yourself, immensity. Immarrow,
Embone, enrib yourself. The wind won't borrow
A plane, nor water climb aboard a current,
But you be all we are, and all we aren't.
You rigged this whirligig, you make it run:
Stop juggling atoms and oppose your thumbs.
That's what we like, we like our rich to slum.
The rich, it may be, like it too. Enmeat
Yourself so we can rise onto our feet
And meet. For eyes, just take two suns and shrink them.
Make all your thoughts as small as you can think them.
Encrypt in flesh, enigma, what we can't
Quite English. We will almost understand.
And if there's things for which we don't have clearance,
(Taken from Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Ephiphany, compiled by Sarah Arthur.)
* A few short weeks ago before writing this post, the worst antisemitic attack in modern American took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, PA. Having read the rest of this post, I hope a deep tension strikes readers: joy does not mean a dismissal or ignorance towards the state of the world – it embraces it, and weeps with it, and rages against the injustice which causes so much hurt. I mourn the loss of my brothers and sisters. For let the Christian Church never forget it is we Gentiles, not the Jewish people, who have been grafted into God’s great plan of redemption. And it is from God’s own people that we should look to in part to discern what it means to faithfully practice patience.
** Compare this to a section of the Wisdom of Solomon (2:1–5, NRSV), an deuterocanonical text in some Christian traditions:
Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades.
For we were born by mere chance,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been,
for the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts;
when it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes,
and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.
Our name will be forgotten in time,
and no one will remember our works;
our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud,
and be scattered like mist
that is chased by the rays of the sun
and overcome by its heat.
For our alloted time is the passing of a shadow,
and there is no return from our death,
because it is sealed up and no one turns back.
*** See Sam Wells, “The Difference Christ Makes,” in The Difference Christ Makes, ed. Charles Collier, 21.
Phil resides in sunny Southern California, having moved from Dublin to pursue a Masters of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary. Phil is passionate about the local church, and wants to encourage and develop deep, theological foundations for the conversations and life in the church. When not writing another paper for class, he can be found expanding his whiskey and coffee palette, composing prayer poems, travelling around a small percentage of the U.S., or engaging in another deep life conversation over a pint or two.