“There’s a man goin’ ’round takin’ names And he decides who to free and who to blame Everybody won’t be treated all the same There’ll be a golden ladder reachin’ down When the man comes around”
Today is the second Sunday of the Christian season of Advent. Each Sunday in advent I’m offering a reflection on one or more of the passages for Sunday’s Liturgical readings. You can read this week’s passages here.
All of this week’s passages are concerned with the topic of Eschatology. Much of contemporary eschatological conversations – across religious traditions – usually focus on “the end of the world. ” However the word derived from the Greek, eskhatos simply meaning last things. Most worldviews and religions that provide some sort of myth for the origins of cosmology, also propose some sort of “end of days” or at least “end of an age” rooted in the mythology used to explain human origins.
In India, Some Hindus await the tenth and final incarnation of the god Vishnu. He is described to appear in order to end the Kali Yuga (the current age of confusion, despair and wickedness) and bring about the Satya Yuga (or new epoch in which humanity is righteous and governed by the gods). In most Eastern religions, time itself is understood to be more cyclical than linear. So these are extended periods of order and chaos that repeat themselves. Ancient Germanic tribes would await Ragnarök, a final battle in which the gods of Germainic and Norse mythology – Odin, Thor, Týr, Freyr, Heimdallr, and Loki – would wage war that would mean the death of gods, a time of turmoil on earth.
Long before the rise of Islam, Zoroastrianism, was the ancient native religion to the indigenous people of Iran. Zoroastrianism probably had more interplay and impact and Jewish and Christian theology more than any other distinct religion of the Ancient Near East. Zoroastrianism has a dualistic but ultimately Monotheistic cosmology of good and evil. It is within this monotheistic framework, the Zoroastrians developed an eschatology which predicts the ultimate conquest of evil by good.
All of this is to say that Eschatology is not a category that belongs solely to Christianity or even the broader Judeo-Christian tradition(s). And within both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament there are nuanced and varying – if not conflicting – eschatological hopes.
The Hebrew Bible or what Christians call “The Old Testament” can be broken down into three major divisions: Torah (Instruction, or Law, also called the Pentateuch), Neviʾim (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). The Hebrew Bible is often called Tanakh, an acronym derived from the names of the these three divisions. Further, the Neviʾim is divided up into two distinct eras: Nevi’im Rishonim or “Former Prophets” and Nevi’im Akharonim: “Latter Prophets.” The primary role of the prophet in either case is to speak boldly to Israel’s political and religious leaders, pronounce god’s judgement on Israel and “the Nations” and to intercede to god on behalf of the people.
For instance, in the more narrative books of the Former Prophets, Nathan confronts David about his grotesque misuse of power, his raping of Bathsheba (not much choice involved when a king calls upon a subject), and his vicarious murder of her husband, Uriah. Elijah stood up to Ahab when he stole Naboth’s vineyard. Collectively, the Former Prophets tell the story of a nomadic collective of 12 tribes becoming two divided Kingdoms and the fall of the norther kingdom to the Assyrian Empire.
The Latter Prophets focus on gods judgement end looming Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the temple after the Babylonian Captivity. In this liminal space between being a crushed and wounded people and the efforts to rebuild Judah and the temple the notion of a Messiah (an anointed liberator) begins to develop. The book of Isaiah is pregnant with messianic expectation.
Today’s reading from Isaiah 11 is about a leader who will have the spirit of God rest on him. This leader would be righteous and faithful. He will bring about a time so peaceful that “the cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together.” Please remember that Prophets spoke truth to power in their own time! They did not just ramble about things hundreds of years in the future that would be nonintegrable to the prophet’s first audience. I will leave it to others to argue about whether this was about Hezekiah or some other Southern leader in the “house of David.”
No doubt this passage also envisions a deeper fulfilment that still has not come to pass. War, violence, famine, and inequity permeate the air we live in. The air we have always lived in.
But look how much the “center” of this eschatological hope – especially in Christianity – has dramatically changed and mutated. The notion of God coming to humanity by way of an anointed leader has turned into God coming in the person of Jesus to take humanity away.
That may be a bit of an overstatement that doesn’t find a home in doctrinal statements that still talk about a renewal of the earth and God Reigning on earth.
I remember as a child coming home from church many a warm Sunday to sit on my dad’s wood pile, making percussion instruments of the logs and singing, “Our God Reigns.” Or I would just lay on my back on our family’s large trampoline and stare into the sky. In the warmth of the sun I would wait and stair for Jesus to part the Clouds. Have you ever seen the Hanna-Barbera animated series, Super Friends (DC’s Justice League)? I waited every Sunday for Jesus to part the clouds and appear like a 1000 foot Apache Chief, come to carry me “home.”
But earth is my home. Earth is my only home. During this advent season, I do long for and work towards whatever bit of heaven, of light, of good, of “divinity” we can manifest on earth.
I no longer wait for “the man to come around” and drop a golden ladder for me to climb out of this world. To continue to do so, would require tremendous cognitive dissonance. However, we can all live like we are eager for a time of justice, peace and equality. It is often said that the linear notion time that is the genius of the Hebrew scriptures when compared to more cyclical world views like the cyclical epochs in Hinduism. I would contend the true genius – especially as it is seen in Isaiah and the prophets – is not that time is linear or will come to an end per se. Rather, they present a case that while time goes on, and on, and on… a day is coming – or at the very least a day is possible – when the status quo of tyranny and oppression are overthrown and replaced with justice and a spirit of freedom. This is the kind of messianic age I light a candle, hope for and work towards this Advent Season.