The gist of today’s gospel is clear enough. We cannot see or know the future. We ought to live on the qui vive. Health there is, to be sure, and succor in a full acceptance and recognition of such a humble epistemology and such a rigorous ethic. Let us admit to the bone our cloud of unknowing about the days and hours to come. Let us live every day and every hour of every day as if it were our last. Song and sacrament, sermon and prayer, they will guide us along this very path come Sunday morning, come this very morning.
What is less clear is the meaning of the coming of the Son of Man. What is the nature of this coming? Who is the person so named? What difference, existential difference, everlasting difference does any of this make? What did Jesus actually say here? On what score did the primitive Christian community remember and rehearse his teaching? Did Matthew have a dog in this fight? How has the church, age to age, interpreted the passage? We shall pose these four questions to verses 36 to 44 in the 24th chapter of the Gospel bearing the name of Matthew, and then apply the verses to ourselves.
Jesus. Jesus may have used this phrase, though over late night refreshment in 1997 Marcus Borg once pushed hard that it is a later church appellation. It may have been both. This phrase, coming out Daniel chapter 7 (did Jesus hear this read and hold it in memory?) and the stock Jewish apocalyptic of Jesus’ day, was as much a part of his environment as the sandals on his feet, the donkey which he rode, the Aramaic which he spoke, the Palestinian countryside which he loved, and the end of time which he expected, in the contemporary generation. Did he understand himself to be that figure? We cannot see and we cannot say, though I think it unlikely. That is, Jesus used the phrase, most probably, but not of himself, most probably. It is Mark and the author Enoch who have given us the ‘Son of Man’ in its full sense, and it is Matthew alone among the Gospel writers who uses the ‘coming’ in a technical sense (so Dr. Perrin, IBDS 834, and others). The soprano voice of Jesus is far lighter in the gospel choruses than we would think or like.
Church. Mark, Luke and Matthew carry forward these standard end of the world predictions. Our lectionary clips out the mistaken acclamation of 24: 34, just two verses ahead of our reading, but we should hear it: Truly I tell you this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Like the waiting figures in the Glass Menagerie, the earlier church has hung onto these blown glass elements while awaiting a never returning person, like that telephone operator, ‘who had fallen in love with long distances’. They preserve the menagerie in fine glass of hopes deferred that maketh the heart sick. That generation and seventy others have passed away before any of this has taken place. We do not expect, literally expect, these portents any longer. Nor should we. They are part of the apocalyptic language and imagery which was the mother of the New Testament and all Christian theology since, a beloved mother long dead. The Son of Man was the favorite hope child of that mother. A long low alto aria this. Yet we should, and do, hear these apocalyptic passages. They are a part of our shared, family history.
Matthew. To his credit and to our benefit Matthew makes his editorial, redactorial moves, to accommodate what he has taken from Mark 13. The point of apocalyptic eschatology is ethical persuasion, here and in the sibling synoptic passages. Watch. Be ready. Live with your teeth set. Let the servants, the leaders of Matthew’s day, be found faithful. After 37 excoriating verses directed against the Pharisees in chapter 23, white washed tombs which outwardly appear beautiful but within full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness—the hard truth about religion at our worst, and after 43 further verses in chapter 24 of standard end time language, Matthew pulls up. He locks and loads and delivers his sermon. You must be ready. The figure of the future is coming at an hour you do not expect. Hail the Matthew tenor.
Tradition. Immediately the church scrambled to reinvent and reinterpret. Basso profundo. One example, found early in the passage, will suffice. Of that day no one knows, not even the Son. Except that some texts take out ‘even the Son’, in deference to Jesus’ later and higher Person. It is, finally, and except for occasional oddball readings, like that of the Montanists in the second century and the fundamentalists in the twenty first, the church’s view that apocalyptic language and imagery convey the future as unknowable and the present as unrepeatable. The future as unknowable and the present as unrepeatable…
To sum up: As soon as we reach out to grasp the future it has slipped past us, already flying down the road to the rear, into the past. The present itself is no better, because its portions of past and future are tangled permanently together. We do have the past, neither dead nor past…or do we? Memory and memoir spill into each other with the greatest of ease. One agnostic admitted that music, performed, was his closest approximation of God, the presence of God, the proof of God. We shall listen in a moment to a beautiful anthem, with rapt attention. One trusted Christian—it may have been you—sensed grace and grace in the grace of worship, unlike any other. Every moment is a veritable mystery. Music is a veritable mystery. So next week, we shall hear: My body and My blood, these are veritable mysteries, so named mystery, sacramentum, to this day. How shall we respond?
Sleepers awake! There is not an infinite amount of unforeseen future in which to come awake and to become alive! There does come a time when it is too late, allowing the valence of ‘it’ to be as broad as the ocean and as wide as life. You do not have forever to invest yourself in deep rivers of Holy Scripture, whatever they may be for you. It takes time to allow the Holy to make you whole. Begin. You do not have forever to seek in the back roads of some tradition, whatever it may be for you, the corresponding hearts and minds which and who will give you back your own-most self. It takes time to uncover others who have had the same quirky interests and fears you do. Begin. You do not have forever to sift and think through what you think about what lasts and matters and counts and works. Honestly, who could complain about young people seeking careers, jobs, employment, work? Do so. But work alone will not make you human, nor allow you to become a real human being. Life is about vocation and avocation, not merely about employment and unemployment. You are being sold a bill of goods, here. Be watchful. It takes time to self interpret that deceptively crushing verse, ‘let your light so shine before others’. Begin. You do not have forever to experience Presence. It is presence, spirit, good for which we long, for which, nay for Whom, we are made. It takes time to find authentic habits of being—what makes the heart sing, the soul pray, the spirit preach. Your heart, not someone else’s, your soul, not someone else’s your spirit, not someone else’s. Begin.
You must be ready. For the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
For example. How do you deal with hurt that comes from a person you deeply love, a relationship you truly enjoy, an institution you firmly affirm, or a friendship you lastingly cherish? Was yours a contentious Thanksgiving feast? It is one thing to think about pain, permanent or passing, that comes in collision with others whom we do not know well or care for. These traffic accidents are perhaps to be expected in the rush hours of relational experience. When we do not know one another, or not well, we can miss cues and generate miscues that those more familiar would avoid. Not knowing you I did not know and would never have expected that you are an avid Yankees fan, and if I had I would never have said what I did, directly, about Alex Rodriguez. Well, I probably wouldn’t have done. But what about the church you deeply love, when disappointment comes from the pulpit? What about that lifetime friend who says something unpleasant and hurtful? What about that employer, whom you revere and admire, to whom you give both creativity and loyalty? What about that community group whose organizational needs you have selflessly met, that then makes a statement or takes a decision that causes you pain? Or, what about the country you love, when its voice, its choice, deeply disappoint? In short, what happens when those you love hurt you? How do you deal with that?
Perhaps you will irrupt in the moment, lash out in reaction, without any due process of reflection, because the moment needs it, and you have or feel you have no choice. Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay. Be angry, and let not the sun go down on your anger. This may cause more problems than it solves, of course, but you may have had no choice. Sometimes it is better to stand and fight.
Perhaps though flight is better. You may sense that you just want to put some distance between yourself and your source of pain, institutional, relational, or personal. A little time, a little distance, a little pause, a little absence. Thence a cooling off, it may be, not a squaring off. In some measure that may suit you and the challenge. You did not start it. You do not need to take responsibility for it. Shake the dust from your feet. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day. (You see how tough it can be even, especially when you know the Bible, to pick out the right Bible verse!) Flight postpones, but not in healing tones. The trouble is still there, though it may just dissipate on its own. Not all battles have to be fought. Sometimes it is better to take flight.
Perhaps playing dead is the way to go. You know, like animals do, they just curl up and become a log or a part of the scenery. Let life go along, and let the conversation play out. You do not need to oppose. You do not need to repose. You can just pose in silence. You can use the silent treatment—present but quiet. This could work, though there is a quality of falsehood about it. It may depend on just how substantial the fender-bender was, how hurtful the collision, how extreme the traffic accident. Silence alone has limits to its beneficence. Still, as the man said, ‘I would rather remain silent and be thought a fool than to open my mouth and remove all doubt’. Sometimes it is better just to keep your own counsel, and play dead.
You have though at least one other option. Fight, flight, play dead if need be. Yet you might also, well, wait. We are approaching Advent, are we not? Wait upon the Lord. That is, you might think through what happened, both putting the best and worst lights upon it. You might pray about it. Hold it in prayerful thought. You might think out a couple of sentences that you would caringly use, should the institution, relationship, or person provide an opening for that. And then you would have to ‘hurry up and wait’. Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you. “You know, I have had that interchange in mind since it happened. Honestly, for whatever reason, it did hurt. But given the love, joy, happiness, meaning and help you give me over so much time, it is just one brief solar eclipse that comes once a decade, when all else is sunshine. Thanks for mentioning it.”
For example. For those still reeling a bit from the last 18 months and the last 18 days in these United States, we may ask: How do you feel? What have you learned? Your protégé, now ten years out from his Marsh Chapel choir experience, and his decision to enter ministry alongside his choir member bride, now in Philadelphia says, I feel like I’ve been kicked in the smug (J). How do you feel? And what have you learned? What are the lessons to be stowed away for future use as birthday gifts, years from now, gifts on the go as it were, for future generations? The lesson that ‘those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities’(Voltaire)? The lesson that we see what we want to see? The lesson that both sexism and racism lurk, endure, live and breathe? The lesson that, in some dark seasons, selfishness trumps charity; anger trumps reason; hatred trumps comity; bigotry trumps friendship? The lesson that voting, the act itself, matters—really matters? The lesson that gathering—in a rally, say, or better in worship, say—empowers, enlivens, motivates, for ill, or good? (Do you worship? Advent is a good time in which to approach worship.) The sad lesson that some, to win, are willing to enter the sphere of demagoguery, ‘sometimes you have to use a certain kind of rhetoric to motivate people’ (DJT, NYT, 11/16)? Can you hear that? It begs to be heard. Or, even, the basic, technological lesson that email, whether well served on its servers, or ill served by it servants, serves to dehumanize, as a sub-human form of communication?
How about this: The lesson that what one means—by an act, a word, a statement, a vote, say—is not all that such an act means? We will experience Advent through this lesson this year. The lesson, that is, that what you in your heart meant by an act, a word, a statement—a vote, is not in fact the limit of what that vote meant: in fact it is a small part, the greater part of the meaning being found in the effect, the impact, the historical influence of the vote. The meaning of a text is found in the future it opens, the future it imagines, the future it creates. (Ray Hart). So too, the meaning of an act, a word, a statement, a vote, say, is found in the future, bright or dark, which it creates. What you meant is not what it means. For that, you have to listen to those harmed, or helped, by it. Meaning is social, not individual, hence our use of words, our developed language, our investment in culture, our life in community. You may have meant it one way, but its meaning is found along another. Such hard, tragic lessons, to have to learn and re-learn.
The gist of today’s gospel is clear enough. We cannot see or know the future. We ought to live on the qui vive. Health there is, to be sure, and succor in a full acceptance and recognition of such a humble epistemology and such a rigorous ethic. Let us admit to the bone our cloud of unknowing about the days and hours to come. Let us live every day and every hour of every day as if it were our last. Song and sacrament, sermon and prayer, they will guide us along this very path come Sunday morning, come this very morning, as together, in faith and hope and love, we approach Advent.
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