IT TAKES a brave religion to begin its yearly cycle with darkness and destruction. But Christianity is just such a religion, finding meaning in the murk. A new church year is a new birth, from lightless primeval waters into sense and form, colour, and life.
Jeremiah’s vision is appealing from the liturgical and spiritual points of view. For scholars, though, it remains a puzzle. The three verses of the lection have “no point of contact with the verses which precede them” (1-13; McKane). Their message is at odds with the situation of gloom and disaster in which God’s people found themselves at that moment. The hope that they offer is for the future — perhaps a very distant future.
We can see why the first Christians identified this passage as a prophecy about the Messiah. The Branch (surely a branch of the tree of Jesse, v.15; cf. Isaiah 11.1) is the one who is rooted in the Lord, but called to grow into ruling over humankind. Such a foreshadowing of the incarnation — still hundreds of years in the prophet’s future — must have been thrilling. Like any good ruler, this righteous Branch will execute justice: that will mean people reaping what they have sown. And he will establish righteousness, which requires that the people’s inner dispositions must come to match their outward observances.
One of the fun things about being a Christian from a liturgical church, observing times and seasons, is juggling two different time patterns as the year unfolds. On the one hand, Advent is a beginning. It builds to a primary climactic moment — the incarnation — on 25 December; then it develops momentum to another climax through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, before settling into green or “growing” time. This is a time of consolidation (in contrast to the acute form of learning that is the Promise of his Glory, or Lent, Holy Week, and Easter).
On the other hand, Advent is a time of endings — specifically the Last Judgement, which once dominated Christian thinking, and which still has power over us today. It is a time in which all that humankind has achieved, from the garden of Eden to the fortification of Jerusalem, to the birth, death, and resurrection of the Messiah, seems suddenly to be under threat. It is the end time: the time of the four horsemen (Revelation 6) who signal the end of the world as we know it.
When we look at Jesus’s words in Luke’s Gospel, the second pattern is to the fore. The world is not being remade: it is being broken. The lights of heaven will blaze like beacons warning of impending violence. The seas, which represent primeval chaos, will become stormy and destructive. It is hard not to identify the signs of climate change as part of this undoing of creation. At this end time (Revelation 21.1), the design and architecture of the world, its order and pattern (which once had given reassurance of God’s hand at work in creation) will crumble to dust. Heaven and earth will pass away (v.33).
The Son of Man is coming, bringing a cosmic judgement on the world; a macrocosmic counterpart to the microcosmic judgement on Jerusalem which Jesus has just related (Luke 21.20-24). For Christians, this does not mean breath-stopping terror (21.26): they should be confident, with heads held high, not idle, asleep, or caught unawares (Ephesians 5.14). The moment that these signs appear — as easy to read as the unfurling of new leaves in spring — Christians are to stand, ready to follow their leader.
Jesus had urged his hearers not to be heavy-hearted, meaning, perhaps, “dull-witted” as much as “downcast”. Paul recasts this message as a prayer for blessing, summing up a season in a sentence: “May [God] so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless . . . at the coming of our Lord Jesus.” From within the faith, this is the time to enter heaven, where (as John Donne expressed it at the end of a sermon) there shall be “no foes nor friends, but an equall communion and Identity, no ends nor beginnings; but one equall eternity”. Donne concluded that sermon with a perfect Advent prayer we too can use: “Keepe us Lord so awake in the duties of our Callings, that we may thus sleepe in thy Peace, and wake in thy glory”.