The Christian year begins, not – as might arguably make more sense – with the Feast of the Incarnation, but with Advent, a season of repentance and preparation that looks forward to the End Times, to the hour when Christ will, as we profess in the Nicene creed ‘come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.’
This curious way of beginning at the end gives me pause, because I have to admit that anticipation of the Second Coming has never been a piece of my piety. I am confident that ‘heaven and earth will pass away’, as Jesus says in the appointed Gospel text for today, but I have absolutely no expectation that this event will be punctuated by the appearance of a human-like figure coming in a cloud. I’m simply too much of a modern rationalist for that, and there’s no help for it.
And yet I say the Nicene Creed in this place nearly every week. I also proclaim the ‘Mystery of Faith’ – ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again’ – at every Eucharist. It’s one of my favourite parts of the liturgy, in fact. I even have a tendency to say it too emphatically, precisely because it catches – because I know I’m struggling to know what I could possibly mean by it.
Strangely, those words – ‘Christ will come again’ – have become especially meaningful to me as words in need of new possible meanings for me. They show me where Christianity has, in effect, died back for me – or where post-Enlightenment thinking has taken an axe to it – and where, consequently, there is need – and room – for new growth in new directions, new shoots branching from the old stock.
The part of the old stock that best helps me cultivate a new understanding of the Second Coming is, of course, the Lord’s Prayer. Although often repeated, this prayer is never the same twice. It is always a new prayer for a new day – for this day, in which we ask God as sovereign to come again, to feed and forgive us again, and to enable us again to withstand a time of trial. Our failings of the day before have died; we have risen with a clean slate for this day, and God is with us. There is everything to hope for, no matter how badly we did yesterday; the love of God returns to us this day.
There is a wonderful assertion attributed to Martin Luther that, sadly, he probably never made. Attempts to locate it in his works have failed, and no one knows how the attribution got started. This is what he supposedly said: ‘Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.’
What does this mean? I like it. I find it inspiring. But why?
Here are three things I would be happy for Luther to have meant by this statement, had he made it, which he probably didn’t.
First, I would be happy for Luther to have meant that he knew that all claims to know when the world will end according to the Bible turn out to be embarrassingly wrong, so he would just carry on and plant the apple tree he had in mind for his garden all along.
Second, I would be happy for Luther to have meant that he wanted to be found keeping faith with creation when Christ comes, so that he could ‘stand before the Son of Man’.
But, third, I would be happiest for Luther to have meant that he knew from all those Bible passages we now read for Advent – the ones about branches and shoots and vines – that the end of the world would not be total, that some young sapling growth from the old world would carry over to the next, and that his apple tree just might supply the necessary continuity.
‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away’, Jesus is made to say in today’s Gospel. All written words will pass away with heaven and earth, so what words could we imagine that Jesus might mean? I can make sense of this saying only by thinking of the creative divine Word itself as that which never passes away.
To that creative Word, that makes us capable, if only for a little while, of a few good things, I say, ‘Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!’