Unfortunately Advent 1 is, in our day, more and more compelling. A year ago, I read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, about the crisis in Western society in the 15th century, and it had a familiar ring. An unexpected plague, the threat of radical Islam, eco-degradation, intellectual drift: all these factors combined to create a kind of apocalyptic foreboding. Is it any wonder our culture flocks to movies with this end-time edge? They are reminiscent of the darkened sun of this Sunday.
There are of course also reasons to be wary. Historical criticism can identify the cultural threats and worries of the time of the prophets being cited, as well as Jesus’ own time, not to mention those of the eras of Christian history that followed. We are hardly first to feel ourselves the last of humans. And yet this does not remove the cogency or the urgency of such a reading of Mark 13 or Luke 21. How then are we to read such passages as we balance passion and restraint?
Sometimes we as readers of the Bible lurch between two extremes. On the one hand, we suppose that the bible can mean whatever it subjectively and emotively says to each reader. Open season! Or on the other hand, we suppose it has one right reading that can be investigated and stated. It is more fecund than this. We do well to recall the more powerful interpretation of the Middle Ages. Bible passages spoke with multiple senses at one time, since reality itself is multi-layered, but not in a random or arbitrary way. A passage of the Bible first required us to understand its original setting, and so its historical meaning. At the same time each passage looked ahead or back to Jesus Christ, the center and standard of all historical meaning. It had the power to apply His meaning to our personal lives (in what was called the moral, or tropological meaning). Finally the Bible always looked forward to the end point and finale of history, to the eschaton, in what was called the ‘anagogical’ sense. Passages were as rich as truth itself, meaning all these at once.
What then of the sun being darkened and the moon turned to blood? The passage echoes the situation and attendant fears of the time of Jesus. It points to His own death, which is indeed the end of all things (and their new beginning) for humankind. It speaks of the apocalypse coming for each of us, when we shall come to an end and find ourselves before the judgment seat of God. And finally, it does, as ‘through a glass darkly,’ tell us something of what lies before the world on that real but mysterious last day. Apocalypse turns out to be then, his, ours, not yet now, each real, all together what we mean by ‘the end of all things.’