Year B, Advent 1 November 27, 2011
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
Sometimes things are not what they seem.
The end of the Church year, lectionary wise, is kind of brutal. Weeping and gnashing of teeth in the parable of the talents; the goats cast into eternal hell fires… and now this week, Advent 1, the first Sunday of the church calendar, the re-creation of the endless cycle of time we live in begins with Mark’s Apocalyptic discourse. “The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light…” Rough. It reminds us that Christianity, or at least Christian scripture, is not for the faint of heart.
What does the word apocalypse mean? Total destruction. Yes. Mark was written in some ugly times, somewhere between 64 (the persecution of Christians by Nero because of the burning of Rome) and 70 (the desolating sacrilege of the temple). What else does it mean? Revelation of the future, hence the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine is more commonly referred to as The Book of Revelation.
“Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down….” Thus says the Prophet Isaiah apocalyptically. So here is another Bible quiz. The heavens were torn open in the Biblical record when? Clue, it happened twice, both times apocalyptically; one representing the total destruction meaning of apocalypse, the other referring to the revelation of the future nature of the world. The first was in the beginning, in Genesis. The dome of the heavens was torn apart and what poured into the world? Water. The flood. When was the second time? The Baptism of our Lord. “And the heavens were torn open and the Spirit of the LORD descended like a dove upon Him.” “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down….” Sometimes things are not what they seem.
We are just starting Advent. This is my favorite season of the Church year. It is the season of creation, of waiting for the new creation in the incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Holiday wise, it does not get any better than this. Let’s put Advent, the season of creation in perspective with the larger Christian story, even the largest Christian story, our cosmology, our understanding of the universe.
To do this, we have to go back, way, way back to the rivers of Babylon where we sat down and remembered Zion. Israel was taken in bondage to Babylon in the 6th century BCE. As fate would have it, Hebrew writing and scholarship was coming of age in the time of the Babylonian captivity. It was the Axial Age, the couple hundred-year span of human history when the consciousness of our species collectively increased exponentially. Plato and Aristotle were running around in Greece. Confucious in China, Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha) in South Asia, and it was the time when the books of Moses were first put to papyrus. The priestly scholars who began to write down the developing Jewish mythology of creation were scholarly enough to have become familiar with the Babylonian mythology of creation. This came in the form of an epic poem called the Enuma Elish. The Babylonians were going through an evolution too, and their creation narrative reflects this. Since Pre-history, we were all in the Goddess culture, worshipping the divine Earth Mother in Her curvaceous gorgeousness. Cycles of stars and moon and seasons reflected the dark watery mysteries of maternal fertility.
The Enuma Elish describes the “evolution” of Babylonian cosmology, from the centrality of an amorphous watery, maternal goddess Tiamat, in whose immense body was contained the universe, to the dominance of a young, angry storm God Marduke. Marduke got into a fight with Tiamat’s consort and killed him. Tiamat was enraged and the two fought. Marduke raised his sword and cleaved Tiamat in two. He separated the two halves and made them like a dome, and inside that dome, a more understandable life happened, one sheltered from the Chaos of Mystery. It was a decidedly feminine Mystery. “God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, separating the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.” That is our story; that the world we know is a contained by a dome cleaved from the Body of the Goddess to hold back the soup of infinite Mystery and Chaos. That is our story and it is Babylonian. Sometimes things are not what they seem.
The dome of heaven was torn apart by God first as a redux, to reboot. Things got off to a bad start and the destructive apocalyptic nature of reality was released and the Earth was purified with the Mystery of Water of Great Depth. The dome of the heavens, this thing constructed to keep the true nature of things walled out was torn open a second time when God revealed God’s self to us in the form of Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son, God from God, light from light, True God from True God. And he was here, walking around, being human. Being our salvation.
What I am saying is that this dome of the heavens is a myth, a powerful and pervasive myth, but one not true. This is what Christ reveals. There was the old covenant, then there was version 2.0. 2.0, Jesus Christ, shows us that there is no dome; that the heavens and earth are not separate, that dualities are not real. The Incarnation of Jesus shows us that being can be understood in terms much broader than what we can see and feel and hear, that all equations do not have to balance in a way we rationally expect them to. Look with eyes wide open into the eyes of a baby or the eyes of anyone you deeply love… nothing computes there. Nothing adds up, but it is the most real and truthful thing I have ever experienced, looking into the windows of someone’s soul.
Thinking inside the dome we dread the unknown. Thinking inside the dome we value only the seen, not the unseen; but God created that, too. Thinking inside the dome we fear the greatest gift God gave in the Creation act: Mystery. Mystery this is the true nature of things and we cannot continue to live with the mystery of God and the world walled off behind bad religious mythology. We need to say to the myth of the dome what Glinda said when the Wicked Witch threatened her and Dorothy, “Rubbish, you have no power here.” O! that we were in Munchinland with Glinda. The constraints of the dome are powerful enemies, but only if we let them be.
The theologian Paul Santmire writes that the church happens under a hole in the heavens. It is like right above us, it happens each time we gather. The heavens are torn apart and the power and the glory of God is revealed in the people, in us gathered around this table in the actions we are about to take together. Church happens under a hole in the heavens where Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior is revealed to us. In Advent we are again practicing waiting for His arrival, cloaked in flesh, an infant child born in poverty, into a world of empire and violence and despair and the indelible knowledge and hope that God loves us absolutely, unconditionally and eternally, time and time again no matter what. That is the story we as Christians hold up for the sake of the world. Sometimes things are not what they seem. And sometimes that is great. AMEN.