The first generation of Christians expected the Son of Man to come back in their lifetimes, literally any day. They were an apocalyptic Jewish sect, whose Messiah had come and saved and risen in triumph over death—and promised to come back soon to finish the job. And for Jewish apocalyptics, finishing the job meant ending the world. They looked up to the sky and waited for Him, clad in prophetic imagery, to descend on the clouds and open His arms and end their trials and bring the world into the Kingdom of Heaven. In this waiting mode, Paul advised his fellow Christ-watchers not to make any major life changes: If you’re married, he said, stay married. If you’re single, stay single. All of this is not for long. Christ will come to take us up.
We all know this didn’t happen. Hasn’t happened yet. A few decades after Golgotha, generations began to turn over and to work out a way to cope with what was becoming the Christian life: a long haul of uncertainty, persecution and fellowship, preaching and eating, sleeping and martyrdom, love, hope, and the mending of clothes—every human being’s daily trek from birth to death. And they began to write down their faith to pass it on, and they began to write the theology of watchful waiting.
…keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
(Mt 24:22 – 24 NIV)
…the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. (Mt 25:1 – 13 NIV)
They wrote inspiration and admonition into the Gospels: Be ready, don’t give up hope, don’t relax the works of faith! Keep waiting, he is coming! “…you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night,” wrote Paul to his brothers and sisters in faith (1 Thes 5:1 – 3 NIV). And now, 2,000 years have passed. He still hasn’t come. Is he coming? What are Christians saying? What are they thinking? Are we still waiting? And more importantly, for what?
I have a friend who, I think, is representative of a certain common type of practicing Christian: she is huge-hearted and fiercely compassionate, truly kind, perseverant through the many—and often brutal—hurdles of her life, highly ethical in work, and enthusiastically gullible for a variety of inspirational techniques and messages, most of which turn her religion into a caricature but give her faith a regular emotional boost. When three years ago I told her that I’d become Christian, the extent of her jubilation prompted me to ask what had been so profoundly and obviously wrong with me before, and she said she’d prayed for my conversion since we met. It would have been a shame if such a good person, you know, had to go to Hell.
My friend is very engaged in watchful waiting, very aware of this world’s painful need for final salvation, and very faithful to the person and image of Jesus, but a few months ago, in a barely related conversation, she said something that made me once again wonder how many of us and in how many different ways really understand what we are waiting for—and why. It was a brief exchange, I was in a hurry to go teach a class, and so she shared with me a summary of an article she’d just read. It was someone’s vision, or a prophetic dream, or at least so it was claimed, and in the dream the author found himself on some distant planet in our universe, among happy and welcoming aliens who lived in a perfect society: just, free, and peaceful, violence-free, full of love and compassion and without suffering. Make sure you understand: the article was not fiction or metaphor, it was a report of a visit to a real place yet undiscovered by humanity. And in that place, they had no suffering and no sin. That’s right. Sinless.
“How have you managed to preserve such a perfect world?” our author asked, amazed.
“We never crucified the Christ,” the answer came.
My friend, having related this to me, beamed with joy for these aliens, then sagged under the shame and worry for us, the accursed humankind, and I stood mute and horrified at the monstrous butchering of every meaningful concept in Christianity that had just inspired her to ethical reflection and loving humanitarian concern. I am rarely rendered speechless, but it took me several seconds to get my mouth moving. “Good Lord, what are you talking about? This makes absolutely no sense even if we allow, just for the hilarity of it, that an alien planet has a history that replicates phenomena like crucifixion.”
“What’s so nonsensical about it?”
“Well, for one, Christianity has never claimed that the execution of Jesus brought the curse of suffering upon humanity. It was not the ‘original sin,’ and our current problems are not payback for his death. Judeo-Christian mythology traces original sin to the beginning of human history because that’s how far human suffering goes, together with disease, social strife, military battles, environmental disasters, and the war of the sexes. The Passion story that culminates in resurrection is a story of salvation from sin that was already there, so the absence of the Passion from our history would not result in the absence of sin or of suffering. In fact, the opposite. Christ crucified saves humanity not dooms it. Christianity recognizes the way to salvation in the passion and resurrection of Christ, in the way it brought us to face the chasm between our reality and our created potential and built a bridge over the chasm, in the way it made us feel the pain of our wounded nature and showed us the love that heals this wound, in the promise of a better future, a grander picture, a Kingdom of Heaven for all. The mission of Christ was not a failure because it ended in violent death, and Christians are not waiting for the second coming to have a second go at it. They are waiting to finish what’s been started.”
Something like this was my little spiel, and I hurried away to my class and left my friend to ponder. To this day I don’t know if I convinced her back then.
There’s something of a schizophrenic element in the emotional make-up of modern Christianity in that we are watching and waiting and yet we are not. We are reading eschatological bits of scripture about the Last Day, and we are serious about it. We read the Gospel and are called to stand ready every day—or at least on Sundays. On this notion our very faith is founded. And yet… We are not really waiting. We look askance at those who look up to the sky, really waiting for Him—the apocalyptic sects. In the mainstream society, they are at best fringe elements, a nuisance, and at worst a danger to our children, cults.
We have given up waiting; more than that, we have found an appreciation of the good that is the world. This was inevitable, and it was good. Christianity, a faithful if rebellious daughter of Judaism, could not live out what would have been then its very short life just biding its time until the world was over. In the spirit of its members, in its Hebrew scriptures, and in the very preached message and salvific action of death and triumph over death the Christ had brought about, it had to rediscover the value of this world—the world for the sake of which it all had happened, for which he’d come, and died, and lived. For which he promised to come back. And now it’s been 2,000 years. The world has become more Christian than almost anything else, for better or for worse, and we love it, warts and all. We don’t rise every morning hoping that it will end.
So what does that make us? How do we reconcile our longing for the Christ returned among us and our habitual and joyful place in the world, in which we have found that we live and move and have our being after all? That longing for His return used to be so strong we couldn’t focus on anything else but having Him back, and now “the second coming” is a suspect topic. Have we lost the longing?
Yes and no.
I believe we have not lost our longing for Him, but we no longer look for our reunion to be coming from the clouds.
I am a mystic, a somewhat illustrative example of Karl Rahner’s theory as he famously insisted that the Christian of the future must be a mystic each: every one of us must find an inner union with God or lose the connection. But we are not on our own in this. Having taken our eyes off the clouds, the body of the Church still longs for the return of Christ, and the Church gets that return. Every day. Not ephemerally or abstractly but in the body, tangibly and before our eyes. Christ returns to us in body and blood every day, through the Eucharist.
Sacrament is mystery, and part of Catholic mysticism is sacramental—perhaps, the heart of Catholic mysticism. And Eucharist is the heart of Catholicism, the heart of Christian tradition. This is the presence of Christ in our midst, that which Paul and all of that first, blessed and desperate generation were longing for. As we bide our time and move in the world, we manage our longing and our joy because He IS with us and comes back for us in the way that is concrete and predictable, every time at the Lord’s Table. He comes and fills our own bodies with His essence so we can get to the next time, eventually to the Last Day. But not yet.
The Church is very centered on the Eucharist. I wonder if this is not because, many centuries ago, years were passing and passing by, and the Christ was not coming back.
Sometimes I also wonder, against every notion of the historical person and context of Jesus of Nazareth, if he did say something cryptic at his last Passover Seder and—through a kind of insight the nature of which we cannot explain but the great instances of which are familiar to all humanity—if he meant it to be this way.