A more apocalyptic Advent

We need a more apocalyptic Advent liturgy. Let me explain.

Apocalyptic books, films and games continue to ignite our screens. I just noticed that Canadian Calvin College alumni and film director Patricia Rozema released Into the Forest last year – it’s a story of two sisters trying to survive deep in the West Coast forest after a global power outage. Without gas, electricity, clean water or cell phones, they struggle with a hostile, competitive natural environment – which includes the volatile humans left within it.

This is not an unfamiliar scenario: if it’s not hydro failure, it’s nuclear war, environmental collapse, extremist Islam jihad, asteroids, robots run amok, zombies or aliens. Fewer people attend worship services these days, but many are sitting in the cinema or couched with Netflix watching a dark shadow fall across the landscape of our world. Catastrophic collapse seems easier to imagine than a Creator-Redeemer God.

And it’s not just novels and movies. We are now instructed by scientists that the end of the world is not just a possibility but a certainty. We have only five billion more years on this planet before it is engulfed by the expanding circumference of the sun, as it follows its natural star life-cycle and turns into a red giant. So if our over-consumption doesn’t choke the planet sooner, the sun’s fires will scorch it later.

Biblical apocalypse
Redeemer University College professor Rob Joustra and his American co-author Alissa Wilkinson just published How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith and Politics at the End of the World. They suggest many of the secular apocalyptic stories in popular culture are aptly described as “dystopian apocalypse” – “a destruction of our own making, with no hope for renewal” in which “everything is meaningless and we’re all gonna die.”

They explain that these stories are not just about an exploding planet, but can also explore the end of our world – our culture, our taken-for-granted reality – as we know it. True apocalypse, in the Biblical sense, comes prophetically – as a revelation when perceived realities are shattered. We come to see who we have become – creatures oblivious to our limits – and realize in a new beginning that there is hope for a new world. And we repent.

Perhaps it is symbolically appropriate then, that as the days get darker and darker this fall, we enter into Advent. Advent means “coming” and it assures us that God is not absent from our plight, and he will come someday to restore what was a hostile, competitive, polluted cosmos.

While it is important to remember how Christ accomplished this redemption in his first coming, Christmas needs to shift more intentional focus on Christ’s second coming. The early church was on the edge of its seats in expectation of Christ’s return. They were mistaken about an imminent return, but as the centuries roll by the church has become shy, if not neglectful, of a second coming. Only at funerals, standing on the edge of a gravesite, do we hear the apocalyptic phrase, “Maranatha, Christ come quickly!”

More than meager survival
The true meaning of human history is hidden in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who now rules all creation from the right hand of God Almighty. Someday the great secret will be revealed to all as he returns and restores the whole creation. We hope it will be a world with no more crying, no more dying, and no more sorrow. I don’t know how this will happen, and how the sun’s developmental cycle will be adjusted, but I’m betting my life on it. It is as miraculous as the original creation itself.

Advent is good news that exposes our cynicism and calls us to repent in good faith. Its news we ought to be proclaiming in the dark days of Advent, when most stories available in popular culture have a hard time imagining a divinely orchestrated renewed creation. As congregations we need to shift the weight of our gaze from turning back to the manger in Bethlehem, and towards the glory of a second Advent.

We need to remember the angels and wise men in order to believe that something just as spectacular can happen again. But we need to also anticipate a new Advent, and our liturgies should also look ahead as well as backward. We also need to live into that future of justice and peace. Today.

Another way to demonstrate this glorious hope would be to write novels, make movies and produce Christmas specials that give clues to that kind of apocalypse. Stories that go beyond the meager survival of Into the Forest that offer more than meager survival in the dark. It could be that God delays the end, urging our story-telling best, that more might embrace the good news.
Jesus reigns, let the Earth be glad!

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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