Approaching Advent: A Call to Restore the Apocalyptic Dimension of Liturgy

To examine the apocalyptic dimension of Christian liturgy is to look at how liturgy unveils the truth about “the One who is coming … and will not delay” (Heb 10:37), whom Christians encounter in the eucharist. Such a revelation invariably disrupts, disturbs, and reorients because it also reveals the truth about the broken and suffering world standing before the Christ who comes. In the words of Johann Baptist Metz, this revelation of the truth of the one who is coming is “the lightning bolt of danger that lights up the whole biblical landscape, especially the New Testament scene.”[1]

When theology and liturgy become unmoored from the apocalyptic dimension of the gospel, their ability to combat the sinful powers of apathy, intransigence, shame, dehumanization, and egocentrism are threatened. Metz read the signs of the times this way:

“The older Christianity gets, the more ‘affirmative’ it seems to become, the less negative theology it seems to tolerate, the more it tries to save itself from the times by ‘closing itself off.’ For me this is one of the reasons why eschatology and apocalypticism have faded out of our Christology. The lightning bolt of danger appears to be a thing of the past; the storm is moving off; the thunder only echoes; darkness and clouds are behind us. Our sense of the misfortune of others is atrophying; we quickly pass from the fastness of faith to a fastness of bewilderment, and anyone talking about vulnerability only appears to be giving voice to doubt and despair. It seems to me that the pressing task for theology is to draw our attention to all of this.”[2]

Religion that is silent about danger, vulnerability, and the suffering of the world loses not only its ability to transform, but also to console.[3]  Metz argues, “Only if we recover in these onerous apocalyptic images of danger some sense of the situation of Christian hope, will the other images of hope, the images of the Kingdom of God, not collapse like images long ago unveiled as archaic daydreams. Only if we remain faithful to the images of crisis will the images of promise remain faithful to us.”[4] Thus, the apocalyptic dimension of the gospel and liturgy offers a foundation for Christian hope and boldness, because the faithfulness and love of God is revealed in this one, who came among us to suffer as we have suffered, even to die, so that a way might be made for us to enter fully into the presence of God.

A few years ago, I read Hebrews for the first time all the way through, out loud, as though it were a sermon. I found myself on a journey of solidarity with the preacher and his suffering congregation, following after Christ, our “great high priest” (4:14). This journey was marked by moments of danger, shocking pronouncements: that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” that “our God is a consuming fire” (12:29), that, in a very little while, God would “shake not only earth but also heaven” (12:28). This journey was also marked by hope: by the proclamation that the promise of entering God’s rest is open (4:1) and the invitation to approach, by the proclamation that “we have the confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way he has opened for us” (10:19-20), and by the stunning vision of arrival at Mount Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem (12:22-24).

This apocalyptic juxtaposition of images of danger and images of consolation and invitation, the dialectical juxtaposition of distinct worlds, created threshold-crossing moments along the journey. Intuitively, or perhaps mystically, I felt as though the text was placing me on a threshold and showing me that the door was open, that I could approach the one who was near and who was approaching me, and who had already shown me the way. I was also struck that my journey did not end with this approach or arrival, but that I was then sent out, “outside the camp” (13:13), to suffer in solidarity with the world and the one who knew the world’s suffering.

It occurred to me: this is what liturgy does. Like Hebrews, liturgy shows the way Christ has made for entry into the divine life, and it sends the Christian out, back across the threshold, into a suffering world to transform it through sometimes painful and costly acts of solidarity.  Treading the path back and forth across this threshold is the pattern that forms the Christian life, but all too often the threshold becomes blurred by liturgy that fails to tell the truth: either about the Christ who is coming or about the broken and suffering world that stands awaiting his Advent.

As we approach the season of Advent and our lectionary readings highlight the apocalyptic consciousness of the New Testament, I will offer here some thoughts about how we might restore the apocalyptic dimension of our living liturgies through the recovery of significant acts of threshold-crossing.  These thoughts are a work in progress, so I crave your conversation and comments.

[1] Johann Baptist Metz, A Passion for God: The Mystical-Political Dimension of Christianity (ed. and trans. J. Matthew Ashley; New York: Paulist Press, 1998, 48.

[2] Ekkehard Schuster and Reinhold Boschert-Kimming (ed.), Hope Against Hope: Johann Baptist Metz and Elie Wiesel Speak Out on the Holocaust (trans. J. Matthew Ashley; New York: Paulist Press, 1999), 46.

[3] Metz, A Passion for God, 49.

[4] Ibid.

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