If any part of the liturgical year needs a makeover almost as much as Lent, it’s Advent. For those of you who aren’t liturgical Christians, the Season of Advent began yesterday and is made up of the four weeks before Christmas. It has traditionally had a dual focus, one of which makes complete sense to me and another which is more than a little problematic for someone who doesn’t believe in hell.
The first focus is that Advent has been seen as a season of preparation for the birth of Jesus – or, perhaps more accurately, our celebration of the birth of Jesus. Of course, that is the part of Advent that most everybody is aware of, and the part with which hardly anyone has a problem. Sure, some people actually believe that Jesus’ birthday was December 25th and become mightily upset when someone who knows better breaks the news that nobody really knows the date of Jesus’ birth. When you tell those people that December 25th was chosen to compete with a Pagan celebration related to the Winter solstice, the truth often becomes more than they can bear. All of that notwithstanding, the preparation for the annual celebration of Jesus’ birth is something with which most of us can agree.
The second traditional focus, the return of Jesus to judge the living and the dead at the end times, also known as the Eschaton, is a bit more problematic. The truth is that Christians have been waiting for Jesus’ return since the day of his Ascension – what I sometimes call Jesus’ magic carpet ride through the clouds to heaven to sit at the right hand of God. Never mind that heaven isn’t up there, so it’s a little hard to know what the point of Jesus actually levitating through the clouds might be, and so I must conclude that the Ascension was a mythological literary device. Call me a heretic, but inasmuch as helium Jesus’ Ascension is a problem, his eventual return in glory is even more problematic. Since I don’t find Jesus’ Ascension to be a literal event I certainly don’t believe he has been hanging out in the clouds for the last two thousand years just waiting for another magic carpet to be free so that he can return.
The earliest Christians believed that Jesus would return in their lifetimes. Why? They believed that because, according to the Bible, Jesus told them that before the generation then living passed away the end would come (cf. MK 13). Was Jesus lying, or was he mistaken? Or was he referring to something else entirely? Christian fundienuttalists have used the idea of Jesus’ return coupled with a literal interpretation of the most symbolic book of the Bible to build whole nonsensical but appealing (to them) theologies built around that return and the cataclysmic events that will precede it, occur during it or after it, and any number of other fantasies bizarre enough to sell a whole series of lousy novels to naive consumers. Those bizarre fantasies aside, what did happen during the lifetimes of the people alive when Jesus made his statement was the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. That meant the end of the Jewish Temple system, the destruction of Jerusalem itself, and a huge transition in Jewish spiritual life. Jesus wasn’t talking about the end of time, he was talking about the end of the age. It’s only the bizarre fundienuttalist imagination that has fueled all of this “left behind” nonsense.
This Advent, let’s leave behind the eschatological focus of Advent. It’s a focus that has become so perverted by populist, lunatic fringe theology that it really is no longer serviceable. More importantly, our evolving understanding of God simply doesn’t support the notion of a judgment in which some get cast into hell and others get to go to the aforementioned heaven beyond the clouds that was helium Jesus’ destination in the (mythological) Ascension. If you think that my characterization of helium Jesus is absurd, imagine how the traditional account sounds to someone raised outside the Church! We would be much better served to focus on the present moment (and perhaps the goal of our spiritual journey as union with all that is) than to engage in fantastical speculation on what that will look like. There’s a lot to be said for keeping it real.