DECEMBER 1, 2013: FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Matthew is probably the last author of the Christian Scriptures to presume Jesus is going to return in the Parousia either in his lifetime or the lifetime of his readers. Yet, as we hear in today's gospel pericope, some in his community are already questioning Jesus' imminent return, else the evangelist wouldn't be so insistent on watchfulness. "As it was in the days of Noah," Matthew's Jesus warns,"... so will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man." Just as most pre-flood people weren't looking for the deluge, so many of Jesus' second and third generation followers had given up looking for his return.
In order to be one of those "taken," Matthew's readers must, "Stay awake!" Though Jesus' followers as a whole have been waiting for over 40 years, they must maintain their alertness. "For at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come."
When prophets like Isaiah speak today of Yahweh's salvation they seem to imply that it might be in the distant future, but when it finally arrives, it'll take care of all the peoples' problems in one fell swoop. Any fear, for instance, that the Chosen People are insignificant will instantly be erased once "the mountain of Yahweh's house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills." Teachings which only a few follow now will one day be acknowledged by everyone. Gentiles will ". . . climb Yahweh's mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob." They'll be instructed in his ways and walk in his paths.
The effect of everyone on earth following the commands which Yahweh originally gave only to the Jews will be breathtaking. "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again." All people will then be able to live a life that once was only a dream for a few.
Isaiah doesn't seem to present his vision of universal peace as an event which will take place in stages. Once his "days to come" actually come our lives will change in an instant.
Listening to today's Roman's passage we suspect that Paul identifies with Isaiah's brand of instant salvation. But there's a big difference in what triggers that instant. Like Matthew, the event driving the Apostle's hopes and dreams isn't the moment all people will acknowledge Jerusalem and its Law of Moses as the norm for their behavior; it's Jesus' Parousia.
Writing in the late 50s or early 60s to a community he promises to visit soon, Paul reminds them of the obvious: "Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand."
He would have been amazed that we're hearing these words almost 2,000 years later, and Jesus still hasn't returned in the way he and all early Christians expected. Instant salvation wasn't just around the corner.
By the end of the first Christian century, it would become clearer and clearer that salvation was something we'd have to work at day by day. We weren't going to instantly experience it in the near future. Should the glorified Jesus unexpectedly come while we're in the middle of bringing it about, no one would complain. But the actions which Paul once believed imitators of Jesus were committed to carry out only for the short term we now see as encompassing all our lives into the distant future.
Our hope is that by daily "conducting ourselves properly" our world will eventually change, change in the ways our ancestors in the faith once thought it would change in a split second.