“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.”
Our parish men’s group was meeting yesterday and reflecting on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of us seemed to interpret the command to “be alert” in the context of our own personal salvation. Are we going to be among the sheep or the goats when judgment day comes?
I wonder whether there are risks in reading this text in such an individualistic way. The coming of the Lord-which should be a source of joy and hope for Christians-becomes a source of anxiety, as in the famous bumper sticker from the 1970s: “God is coming and boy is she pissed!”It may be helpful to remember that the coming of the Lord’s judgment is also the coming of the Lord’s justice, the justice that restores exiles to their home, rebuilds ruined homesteads, and provides hope for the widow and orphan. It is about the definitive triumph of God over sin and evil.
Perhaps one of the reasons that such a coming fails to fill us with joy and hope is that we have become too attached to our lives as we currently live them. As the Franciscan spiritual writer Richard Rohr once observed, to be able to pray “thy kingdom come,” we must also be able to pray “my kingdom go.” I know that my own life is one of relative peace and prosperity, especially when compared to people outside the United States. It’s not surprising that I might feel anxiety over the loss of this way of life.
One hermeneutical principle I try to follow is to read a difficult biblical text through the eyes of those who are poor or oppressed. I suspect it is easier, for example, for those living through the unending war in the Congo to pray “come Lord, and do not delay” than it is for me. When we look at some of the more intractable examples of evil and suffering in this world, it is easy to despair of the ability of human beings to set them right.
Some will see this as an invitation to ignore our responsibility to work for what peace and justice may be obtainable in this world. That is not my intent. There is always, however, a shadow side to human progress. The same technology that has given us our high standard of living can be used to slaughter millions living in a modern city or a sole child in her mother’s womb. The wheat of civilization and the weeds of barbarism grow together until the harvest.
At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves whether we need Christ or not. Do we long for a world transformed by His coming or would we prefer that He tarry a little longer? Our relatively comfortable lives can make it hard to think clearly about these questions. Ultimately, it is only when we come to a deep appreciation of the grip that sin and evil has on our world-and on ourselves-that we can make Isaiah’s prayer our own: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down!”