“Apocalypse, Lament, and Advent” by Jeanne Marcus

First Sunday in Advent

December 3, 2023

One of the unexpected blessings of having an energetic young grandson living in New York City is that if a wild, wet, windy day comes along while we’re visiting, we join the family heading out on their favorite rainy day activity—taking the bus to the American Museum of Natural History. This is how it’s happened that I’ve been blessed with three times experiencing the WORLDS BEYOND EARTH space show in the Museum’s awesome Planetarium.

It would be impossible to convey this experience in words, but that won’t stop me from trying for a thin pale slice.  When the lights in the planetarium are lowered, the darkness is palpable– a presence in its own right. The Space Show interweaves two stories: one is of the multitude of objects, from small icy moons to the largest planets  that are contained within our sun’s gravitational system.

The other is of humankind’s capacity to devise space vehicles to cross super-vast distances to provide us glimpses of other worlds in space. Some of these devices have only orbited, some have landed on one on a distant rock and learn everything they can from that location; and some can even roam across a surface far, far from home to see what they can see.

The ceiling of the huge planetarium becomes the colossal screen on which is projected moving images so large that one can only focus on a small fraction of what is being conveyed in any moment. From our seats, we are rocketed along a path through thousands of comets, millions of asteroids, toward visits to planets and a few of their hundreds of moons.  The images are awesomely beautiful, and breath-taking and magnificent in what they convey about the worlds that the Creator has fashioned and brought into being.

I speak of all of this as the background for my attempt to convey how singular, how unique, unparalleled life on earth is. Because of all the objects in the vast space of the solar system, there is no other that can support life.

Our closest planet, Venus, is similar in size to Earth, and made of the same materials. It also, like earth, inhabits the same “Goldilocks Zone”, not too hot and not too cold. But Venus is missing one key ingredient: it doesn’t have a magnetic field, no atmosphere that could protect it from solar winds. These winds then evaporate and carry away Venus’s water, turning the planet into a carbon-dioxide greenhouse too hot for life.

Mars once had a magnetic field to protect it, but it turns out that the planet is too small to maintain one, so it too has become a dry and also a frozen desert.  There is a moon of Saturn  and also a moon of Jupiter that have a thick enough atmosphere to support life, but they are far, far colder than the temperature range that can support life.

Earth is perfect for life.  Conditions have been just right for over the course of billions of years to allow increasingly complex life form to evolve.  Now, there are literally millions of life forms on earth: scientists have estimated that there are around 8.7 million species of plants and animals in existence.  The earth and the seas have been so fertile, so generative and plenteous! Some creatures are exquisitely beautiful; some are so unexpected and kooky that we laugh in delight. We are left with wonder at how this seemingly infinite variety and inventiveness of beings ever came to evolve in these ways.

Humanity—homo sapiens,  is one of these millions of types of life forms.  We are sentient beings, but we are far from being alone in that. But we additionally have the capacity for self-reflection, and for reflecting on this world around us, and on our place within it.  In recognition of the reality of there being too much to try to say about humanity, I’ll borrow    what Shakespeare says in Hamlet (which is known to me via Hair: The Rock Musical)

What a work is humankind, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals. 

Humanity is problematic: we are capable of heroic acts, great creativity, and enduring love; we are also capable of great violence, betrayal, and ruination.  We are spiritual beings that can know what a miracle this world is!—And what a miracle we ourselves are! We have an instinct for awe and for addressing ourselves in prayer to beyond ourselves.

All of this is background to talking about where we are on the Church’s lectionary calendar, and why it matters to me. It is the first Sunday in Advent, the start of the Church’s liturgical year. Each year at this time, we start the church’s faith story over again from the beginning.

The very remarkable thing is that the opening moment of our re-telling isn’t a holy birthing, or even the recognition of a pregnancy. Instead, the story begins each year with an apocalyptic  forewarning about the END of things as we know them, advance notice of an approaching  time of collapse and catastrophe.

Chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel opens with a disciple looking at the Temple, and saying to Jesus, “Teacher, look! What awesome stones and buildings!” Jesus responds, “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished…[but] when you hear of wars and reports of wars, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen, but this isn’t the end yet. Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other, and there will be earthquakes and famines in various places. In those days there will be great suffering such as the world has never before seen and will never again see.”

It’s at this point that today’s lectionary passage begins: Jesus he is saying that even the sun and the moon will become dark, and the planets will be shaken and the stars will fall from the sky. In this description, Jesus indicates that what is coming will have immense, even global, consequences.

I think many of us have had some sense that we are heading into an apocalyptic time ourselves. The situation we find ourselves in echoes what Jesus was describing more than 2,000 years ago.

The word “apocalypse” comes from Greek words meaning ‘to uncover’, or “to unveil.”  Apocalypse means the revealing of something that has been hidden from view.  It pulls back back the veil, to reveal what’s really happening under the surface of things. The official story might be that everything’s okay, “nothing to see here”—  but on the deeper level, there is a more essential truth that we’ve been unable to see, perhaps because we’ve been avoiding looking at.

For instance: knowledgeable and passionate voices have been saying for at least a half century that monumental changes had to be made in how we humans related to the world around us: that earth is an inter-dependent system whose workings support the possibilities for life on earth, including our own. But we, individually and collectively, have largely ignored or discounted the true nature of our situation. It’s taken—just for one example, catastrophic droughts and the resulting unprecedented massive and destructive fires to “uncover,” make visible, the deeper earth processes that we have been undermining for so, so long.

Maybe it’s because we haven’t been looking or responding to the most important aspects of our worlds, that apocalypse gives us unsought, unwanted, but very powerful guidance. In that way, apocalypse does for us what we haven’t managed to do for ourselves. To deeply understand the truth of our situation and to be taking essential action to shift it, requires that we clear out former things—old worldviews, old thinking, old patterns of organizing our lives, to make a space for new aliveness. And catastrophe can make transformation possible in ways we otherwise wouldn’t choose. Apocalypse might not be the end of the world, but instead, the end our worlds we’ve created (the cultures and societies)— in the service of ones that better serve the God of Life and of Love.

The word Advent means “coming toward,” points to something “approaching” or “emerging”. On THIS Sunday of Advent, Jesus’ description of catastrophic changes even affecting the sun, the moon, and starts conveys that what is approaching is of monumental importance, and that it involves great and unavoidable suffering.

In her book, This Here Flesh, Cole Arthur Riley eloquently links what she names “the traumas of the world”—like those described in our Gospel passage,  and the practice of lament. She starts by naming her suspicion of people whose faith is based on happiness and staying positive: 

…  I am suspicious of anyone who can observe colonization, genocide, and decay in the world and not be stirred to lament in some way.  [Yes,] we can delight that God made the garden with all those trees of fruit to feast on,  but the earth is ailing and eroding from overconsumption and neglect.  I shouldn’t need to recite a litany of wounds and injustices and decay in order to justify my sadness. In lament, our task in never to convince someone of the brokenness of this world: it is to convince them of the world’s worth in the first place. True lament is born … from a deep conviction that it is worthy of goodness.

What I’ve been trying to do in this short time is to remind us all:  This planet, so miraculously full of life,  is worthy of goodness.  Humans, made as we are in the likeness of the One who conceived of us, each and every one of us, is worthy of goodness. It is right that we lament our ailing earth, the collapse of our societies, and the needless suffering of humanity, and all living things.

Then, a little later, she writes:

Lament is a form of hope.  It’s an innate awareness that what is should not be. It’s as if something is written on our heart that tells us exactly what we are meant for, and whenever confronted with something contrary to this, we experience a crumbling. And in the rubble, we say, “God, you promised.”   And how could we experience such a devastation if we were not on some mysterious plane, able to hope for something different? 

Which is to say: recognizing the precariousness of our situation does not lead to despair, if we are people of faith. When we pray or sing, “Come, come Emmanuel”, we are affirming our faith that the Holy One we know is a Loving and Living One, who sees the heaviness of our times, is moved by our grief and lament, is present with us as Holy Comforter, and who will respond.

On the first Sunday of Advent, the church’s story begins in a time of great darkness and suffering. There is something approaching, or something emerging that is very dark.  But this is a people who trusts that there is a deeper story. The Holy One  they know is more powerful than the darkness that is approaching.  Their trust is in the Holy One, who will be with them, and will respond with strength to address their suffering.  With that deep knowing, they could wait expectantly, they could walk in faith.

Next week, the Advent story will move toward the Christmas story we are more grounded in.  But it’s important to take in this dark beginning,  and to realize our story begins in lament.  At the same time we can rejoice and celebrate that ours have been a people of faith and hope, who have trusted the Holy One and have been ready to wait in faith, not knowing what will come next.

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