The scripture readings for the season of advent tend towards the apocalyptic. I use the word in both senses here: in its original and etymological meaning of “revelation” (literally, unveiling) and in its more colloquial “end of the word” sense. Prophets arise, calling people to repentance. Kingdoms are laid waste and despoiled, but a new kingdom is foretold. And judgment is coming.
At the time of the birth of Jesus, the Hebrew people could only look back upon their earthly kingdom as a remote memory, a time before captivity and exile, before their own kingdom was laid waste. The the colonized victims of a vast imperial power, under rulers who proclaimed themselves gods, the Jews of Palestine looked to the writings of the prophets as assurance that a deliverer would come who would restore Israel to her former glory, and restore justice to the people. Poor, downtrodden, denied the rights of citizens, brutally policed, the people longed for the coming of a Messiah who would lift up the lowly and smite their oppressors. This is evident in the Song of Mary, or Magnificat, in which a poor, pregnant young peasant girl dares to lift up her voice to a God of justice greater than Caesar.
Christianity tends to view history as linear, a single ongoing story leading up to a final apocalyptic point, but the reality is that our story of history is cyclical, repeating tropes and patterns and rituals. This is mirrored in the cycles of our liturgical year, which are closer to nature than the imposed idea of a single line of destiny from Genesis to Apocalypse. So when we celebrate Advent we look back at the words of the prophets who proclaimed the coming of the Messiah – but also forward, to the second coming of Jesus. He said he was coming back, after all.
And since then we have looked for him in the clouds, looked for him in signs and wonders, in rumor of war and upheaval. Whole cults have been formed around the idea of waiting for this elusive second coming, turning away from the things of the world and the cycles of the earth, towards some supposed explosion of it all. Waiting for Jesus has become an occupation for those unwilling to do the work of living on earth, a refuge for quacks and conspiracy theorists. It has even become a death cult.
I think we’ve been missing the point.