I wonder if you can think back to one or more especially quirky things your parents used to say with some regularity throughout your childhood. Maybe they still say them. Do you have a good one you’d be willing to share? It needs to be endearing/lame/memorable.
[When asked for an example: when Dad would set the table for dinner, prepare drinks, he'd find my brothers and me in the living room and say something to the effect of, "Well, what'll it be, boys? Juice? Or Gentiles?" I'll wait a second while you put it together. Ready? Good.]
As a young teenager, I would sometimes holler to my parents as I was leaving the house, “See you later. I’ll be back!” To which my dad would inevitably and dryly respond: “Is that a promise or a threat?”
Har har. Love you, too, Dad.
Tonight, we hear the news that Christ will come again, and I think about my dad. The image given to us in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, and again in Luke’s gospel, is of God’s people standing before the Son of Man, standing blameless before God the Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all the saints. And hearing that Christ will come again - us, before the throne - I wonder my dad’s question: is that a promise or a threat?
On the one hand, clearly promise. Promise: à la Thomas Aquinas in that great hymn - hymn 314 of the 1982 Hymnal - “face to face thy splendor I at last shall see, in the glorious vision, blessed Lord, of thee.” Promise: that, on that great, last day, suffering and injustice will be ended, that God himself will dry every tear. Promise: that, on that day, all things will be reconciled, made whole, brought near to God. Promise: no more warring madness, both in the land and in my soul, but peace, the true peace, of the city of God.
On the other hand, threat. Threat: just to the extent that I sometimes act as if I will not ever be seen by God - or anyone else, for that matter - as I really am, and just to the extent that I sometimes enjoy, find relief in, this thought; the desire to flee, to hide, to escape; never fully eclipsing the instinct that Adam and Eve first learned in the garden.
I wonder if you have ever feared the coming again of another person, and who that person was. My parents used to leave my brothers and me with lists of chores when they would leave the house, things to do while they were away. The chores nearly always were left undone, or put off until the very end. We had reasons, self-inflicted, to fear their return. There are those of us who have more serious associations with fear and returns. Returns like the commotion of the drunken parent, back from God’s knows where, who might or might not have found the hidden baseball bat. Some people think of God’s returning like that. Or returns like the return of the loved one who has come back with tears in her eyes to accept the apology you know cannot undo the hurt you have caused her, and to give the forgiveness you know you will never deserve. I wonder if God’s returning has ever seemed like that for you.
Christ will come again.
There are some of us who, from time to time, long for the return of Jesus so that the others will finally get their just desserts, swiftly. Not just in a nasty way, but even in noble ways that are jealous to see justice and mercy lived out. The Psalms are full of examples like this. I suspect, though, that it is naive and dangerous to pretend that those others have offended God’s justice and mercy more often than I have.
Christ will come again.
There are even some of us who, from time to time, pray against the coming of Jesus so that we can get to do all the things we are planning to do before then. A good friend of mine in college - engaged - one day vocalized his fervent prayer that the second coming hold off just a few more weeks, at least, until he and his fiance were married and had enjoyed their wedding night.
I suspect my friend only said out loud what most of us quietly think about the end and Christ’s coming; reminiscent of Augustine’s brutally honest prayer: “Lord, make me chaste, but Lord, not yet.”
“Be on guard,” Jesus says, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation (that is, wasteful consumption) and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly.”
So here is the question to which these readings and this Advent and the thought of his coming and the standing before Christ keep calling me back: What about the way I hope to be then, standing in the full presence of God, am I putting off now?
What are the contours of holiness? What is its taste? Of the steps I take each day, which steps are in step with my growing understanding of who God is and who I am as God’s own? Which steps merely keep time? Which steps, when I am honest, make me doubt my desire for God? Would I be willing to surrender this last sort of steps?
And here, in the midst of this desire, that question, and honest, self-reflection, a last word about holiness and the practices that might sustain it in this life. It has been said of the saints that for all their pursuit of perfection, it is not their perfection that defines them. Saints are not the ones who always get it right. Rather, saints are those who always remember their great, great need of God. It is the humility of the saints that protects them from presumption and so keep their eyes waiting, watchful, responsive, fixed on the horizon of Christ’s returning. So it is the knowledge that they have been forgiven, for example, that becomes the generous stream of forgiveness flowing through them. It is God’s great love for them, shown chiefly in the humility of Christ born to us, that at the same time embarrasses and inspires them to love without hesitation or fear. It is exactly the brokenness, the weakness, of the saints that occasions their praise of the Great Physician. In each of these ways the lives of the saints grow an appetite for a fulfillment that must, in the end, come from outside of themselves, as gift from outside. So their lives expect, look for, live the yearning of, this gift: the promise of the presence of God.
Christ will come again.
(1) I wanted to title this post something other than '"stuff" my dad says' (let the reader infer), but Rebekah tells me that, while culturally relevant, the preferred title is too edgy for a priest and, more than that, I risk losing the readership of the two or three of you who read the blog with any regularity. "Stuff" it is.