Happy New Year, People of God! In fact, today is the beginning of the new church year. It is the Season of Advent, where we prepare and hope for Christ’s birth. So why then, in today’s gospel, are we hearing about the End Times? Luke’s gospel is full of over-the-top imagery that characterizes this genre of apocalyptic literature we’ve heard so much about this year.
Is it because it’s 2012? You’ll recall it’s the year predicted to be the End of the World, according to the ancient Mayan calendar. This idea was even promoted by the 2009 movie, “2012”. And we seem to have a strange attraction to it. Just think of famous book series like Harry Potter or the Hunger Games, the movie Apocalypto. Then there’s the hugely popular Left Behind Series, which directly uses Biblical themes of the apocalypse. But several months and several million dollars later, we are still here.
Apocalyptic literature is an old genre, but we still hear a lot of this kind of talk today. This fascination with “the end” is not limited to the entertainment world. We hear end-times predictions over and over again by various individuals on the radio or TV. And to them, they are predictingreal ends. Many of these charismatic doomsdayers invoke this chunk of Luke’s gospel to both describe and lend credit to their own predictions. Clearly, Jesus is not trying to make money off of these predictions. So what is he doing? What’s the point of his apocalyptic language?
Well the disciples heard it much differently than we might. They were a much oppressed people. They were people who faced insecurity, threats to safety, and people who wondered how Roman imperialism would ever end. To them, overturning the world order was a good thing because they were on the bottom of it. This message is one of all-encompassing hope.
And how did Jesus convey this hope? What did he say? Jesus quotes poetry. In using phrases like the “Son of Man” or “sea and the waves” “distress” of nations, he reminded Israel of her past struggles and struggles to have hope. You find these words echoed all over the Old Testament. In Joel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel. In the words of Jeremiah, the big prophet of the Exile, we hear similar tones of hope despite everything. Jesus faces a darkening future at the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem. So he bolsters them up by reciting the past greats. He gives hope with a return visit to their roots. The hope they must now have in order to go on is in their very bones.
And how about us? When we are here now, at the outset of December, on a journey towards Bethlehem and Christmas, what do we do? What looms large in our vision? Is it the office party? The bonus? The end-of-the-year donation drives? The school plays? The family visits? The glogg? Bell-ringing Santas, decorated windows! Candy Canes! Whew! There is a LOT to see and to do! We barely notice anything that isn’t bedecked or bedazzled.
Maybe seeing all that helps us forget the harshness of winter. Maybe we can convince ourselves it’ll be great. Things are fine. Are we beginning Advent by pretending that we always and only feel the warm holiday spirit in our hearts? Perhaps we prefer not to ponder the ugly trees outside. I know I’d just as soon focus on an evergreen tree with lights, colors and presents. And then, I stick it in front of my window, so when I’d otherwise look out and see the dead of winter, I see obvious and bright life. Life that is hard to miss, and hard not to enjoy!
Or maybe when seeing all the hustle and bustle, we recoil. We hear those holiday songs on the radio, and think “Oh Lord. It’s begun.” Or maybe we don’t even bother, instead just skipping out on much of the festivities because it makes us so tired. Advent and Christmas are just another thing to get through. We look ahead at our December, and see a space not filled with much of anything we like.
Looking at this way, one could see why today Jesus might describe the upcoming season with visions of the stars shaking and waves roaring. Advent is busy, especially because the rest of the world doesn’t officially recognize it. It has no TV specials or themed lattes. So it’s certainly not hard for it to feel like Advent is this thing we look at and either just see Christmas already, or this thing to wait out.
But Jesus calls us to look! To be alert. Jesus walks and pauses at the woods edge—right up to a fig tree. He says, “See that there?” No, not the tree with the lights. The one with the figs! Now, this is a funny image to me. When I try to picture Jesus in this way, it seems silly. He’s like some ancient botanist. He is, in my mind, examining a winter twig from a dead-looking tree, one that’s like the ones here in Chicago right now. They look dead. Being a biology major, I was intrigued by this fig tree. I learned that they are really big, and very diverse. One species grows up and then bends and bows so that it is called a Weeping Fig. Well, the most interesting thing I learned was that fig trees are a keystone species. This means that they have a huge role in the overall health of the ecosystem. It’s disproportionately large—without the fig, things fall apart. In a very particular way—by the trees own presence— it indicates something good for the whole forest.
Before Jesus goes forward to his very near future in Jerusalem, he pauses at the fig tree. The disciples follow him, themselves in the midst of a very frightening time, to the edge of the woods. And Jesus points to something that plays a key role in our society and personal lives: a winter bud. The promise of summer. Hope. This is not hope that winter end now, that we don’t ever feel pain or loneliness. It’s not hope that tells us winter isn’t real. Jesus doesn’t have us bury our heads in the sand when the heavens roar. No. We are supposed to look right into them!
This radical hope is hard to grasp. But Jesus helps us out. Because we get what it means to hold onto spring and summer while in deep December. The disciples could look at this bud on a fig tree and listen to Jesus, and have no idea what’s going on. Jesus’ action could be foreign and strange and odd. It could be like when we hear the apocalyptic voice and try to picture all the strange happenings. But this attention to the bud on the branch only gives hope—- because the disciples, like us, know what summer is. The call to see summer in a bud of a tree doesn’t do anything for us unless we have felt that suns warmth on our cheek, or smelled that freshly cut grass.
That’s why we begin our Advent journey with a vision of the end. Why Jesus began his journey with a look to the past. We remember the hope that led us to now so that, when we look forward, we see that message of hope. We don’t marvel at Jesus birth for nostalgia. We don’t retell the story of the Magi as an excuse to give ourselves gifts. No.
We head into Advent hoping that we don’t forget everything unjust and ugly in this world, ready to be raptured into a feel-good holiday frenzy. We hope that we have not become blind to the life, to trees growing in winter, that is all around us. That we’re not charging through, head down, until the carols go away. We begin Advent at the base of the fig tree, so that when we see Jesus in the next weeks, we are filled with a radical hope for our world, for our world’s future. We may not quite fully grasp the hope of Luke’s apocalyptic message the way disciples did. But wedo look forward to summer when it’s December in Chicago. We can look at the dead trees outside our church and school and home and envision green leaves and fruit.
Whether Advent for you feels more like bliss or never ending winter, or somewhere in between, I hope that, we all see Jesus as that bud on the branch of Jesse, and hope for its promise of summer.