Advent 1, Bach Cantata, Eucharist
The gist of today’s gospel is clear enough. We cannot see or know the future. We ought to live on the qui vive. Health there is, to be sure, and succor in a full acceptance and recognition of such a humble epistemology and such a rigorous ethic. Let us admit to the bone our cloud of unknowing about the days and hours to come. Let us live every day and every hour of every day as if it were our last. Song and sacrament, Bach and Eucharist, they will guide us along this very path this very morning.
What is less clear is the meaning of the coming of the Son of Man. What is the nature of this coming? Who is the person so named? What difference, existential difference, everlasting difference does any of this make? What did Jesus actually say here? On what score did the primitive Christian community remember and rehearse his teaching? Did Matthew have a dog in this fight? How has the church, age to age, interpreted the passage? We shall pose these four questions to verses 36 to 44 in the 24th chapter of the Gospel bearing the name of Matthew.
Jesus. Jesus may have used this phrase, though over late night refreshment in 1997 Marcus Borg once pushed hard that it is a later church appellation. It may have been both. This phrase, coming out Daniel chapter 7 (did Jesus hear this read and hold it in memory?) and the stock Jewish apocalyptic of Jesus’ day, was as much a part of his environment as the sandals on his feet, the donkey which he rode, the Aramaic which he spoke, the Palestinian countryside which he loved, and the end of time which he expected, in the contemporary generation. Did he understand himself to be that figure? We cannot see and we cannot say, though I think it unlikely. It is Mark and the author Enoch who have given us the ‘Son of Man’ in its full sense, and it is Matthew alone among the Gospel writers who use the ‘coming’ in a technical sense (so Perrin, IBDS 834). The soprano voice of Jesus is far lighter in the gospel choruses than we would think or like.
Church. Mark, Luke and Matthew carry forward these standard end of the world predictions. Our lectionary clips out the mistaken acclamation of 24: 34, but we should hear it: Truly I tell you this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Like the waiting figures in the Glass Menagerie, the earlier church has hung onto these blown glass elements while awaiting a never returning person, like that telephone operator, ‘who had fallen in love with long distances’. They preserve the menagerie in fine glass of hopes deferred that maketh the heart sick. That generation and seventy others have passed away before any of this has taken place. We do not expect, literally expect, these portents any longer. Nor should we. They are part of the apocalyptic language and imagery which was the mother of the New Testament and all Christian theology since, a beloved mother long dead. The Son of Man was the favorite hope child of that mother. A long low alto aria this.
Matthew. To his credit and to our benefit Matthew makes his redactorial moves, to accommodate what he has taken from Mark 13. The point of apocalyptic eschatology is ethical persuasion, here and in the sibling synoptic passages. Watch. Be ready. Live with your teeth set. Let the servants, the leaders of Matthew’s day, be found faithful. After 37 excoriating verses directed against the Pharisees in chapter 23, white washed tombs which outwardly appear beautiful but within full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness—the hard truth about religion at our worst, and after 43 further verses in chapter 24 of standard end time language, Matthew pulls up. He locks and loads and delivers his sermon. You must be ready. The figure of the future is coming at an hour you do not expect. Hail the Matthew tenor.
Tradition. Immediately the church scrambled to reinvent and reinterpret. Basso profundo. One example, found early in the passage, will suffice. Of that day no one knows, not even the Son. Except that some texts take out ‘even the Son’, in deference to Jesus’ later and higher Person. It is, finally, and except for occasional oddball readings, like the Montanists in the second century and the fundamentalists in the twenty first, the church’s view that apocalyptic language and imagery convey the future as unknowable and the present as unrepeatable.
To conclude. As soon as we reach out to grasp the future it has slipped past us, already flying down the road to the rear, into the past. The present itself is no better, because its portions of past and future are tangled permanently together. We do have the past, neither dead nor past, or do we? Memory and memoir spill into each other with the greatest of ease. One agnostic admitted that music, performed, was his closest approximation of God, the presence of God, the proof of God. We shall listen in a moment with rapt attention. One trusted Christian—it may have been you—sensed grace and grace in the grace of the Eucharist, unlike any other. We shall taste in a moment and see. The moment is a veritable mystery. Music is a veritable mystery. My body and My blood, these are veritable mysteries, so named mystery, sacramentum, to this day. How shall we respond?
Sleepers awake! There is not an infinite amount of unforeseen future in which to come awake and to become alive! There does come a time when it is too late, allowing the valence of ‘it’ to be as broad as the ocean and as wide as life. You do not have forever to invest yourself in deep rivers of Holy Scripture, whatever they may be for you. It takes time to allow the Holy to make you whole. Begin. You do not have forever to seek in the back roads of some tradition, whatever it may be for you, the corresponding hearts and minds which and who will give you back your ownmost self. It takes time to uncover others who have had the same quirky interests and fears you do. Begin. You do not have forever to sift and think through what you think about what lasts and matters and counts and works. Honestly, who could complain about young people seeking careers, jobs, employment, work? Do so. But work alone will not make you human, nor allow you to become a real human being. Life is about vocation and avocation, not merely about employment and unemployment. You are being sold a bill of goods, here. Be watchful. It takes time to self interpret that deceptively crushing verse, ‘let your light so shine before others’. Begin. You do not have forever to experience Presence. It is presence, spirit, good for which we long, for which, nay for Whom, we are made. It takes time to find authentic habits of being—what makes the heart sing, the soul pray, the spirit preach. Your heart, not someone else’s, your soul, not someone else’s your spirit, not someone else’s. Begin.
You must be ready. For the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.