There are a few points I feel honor-bound to hit on a few times each year, from the pulpit. These include: the Pharisees are actually cool, the BVM is kind of a badass, the Passion narratives carry lots of antisemitic baggage, and chiefly, for our Advent purposes, apocalyptic literature is profoundly liberating.
For those of us (read: most of us) who were conscious during the 1980s–the present, anything that smells remotely Rapture-adjacent can trigger scary memories of being yelled at in public, handed a Chick tract, and being told that unless you said a specific prayer, you would die in a rain of fire. At the hands of a loving God, OF COURSE. It’s hard to overstate the damage done by preachers as they threw around these texts like mini grenades.
So, I take particular and deep delight each Advent, in ascending the pulpit and announcing how and why apocalyptic texts are good news. To quote a wise bishop–The judgment of God is always good news for the oppressed and the suffering. When we can’t see that, we need to reconsider where we stand.
Here’s what I said:
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
December 2, 2018
Otto’s idea of the numinous + apocalypse = courage required for God’s inbreaking kingdom.
Welcome to Advent! The start of a new liturgical year, and the beginning of preparation for the birth of Christ! While the world outside our doors has been joyously hanging greens and singing Christmas carols, we in church get more of that fun dualism stuff we started with two weeks ago. WARS AND RUMORS OF WARS. FAMINES. DISASTERS. DISTRESS AMONG THE NATIONS. SIGNS IN THE SUN, MOON AND STARS.
As much as it discomfits us, Advent is as much about looking towards the end of time as it is about looking towards the Incarnation. It’s like wearing 3D glasses, where each eye is seeing a slightly different image, but you only get the whole effect by seeing them together. God broke into time with Jesus, and we know that God will again break into time at the end. And both inbreakings are coming.
Advent reminds us that this world, as it stands, is not all there is, is not all there is intended to be, and that God is moving creation towards something better…
Granted, the language used to talk about the Second Coming is….graphic? Sort of over the top? (DISTRESS AMONG THE NATIONS.). And especially if you have been alive through the second half of the twentieth century, it is hard, if not impossible, to hear verses like these, and not have visions of a bloody Rapture, and war with the anti-Christ dancing in your head. Other strains of Christianity have made much of these passages, and used them to frighten people into compliance.
But (and you knew there was a but) that’s never what they were intended to do. First off, like I said last time, these sections were written largely by people who were living through a war. So they are essentially recapping their daily lives, in all its horror. Everyone WAS panicking—Palestine was rebelling against Rome, and it was rather awful.
But also, ‘apocalypse’ was a well-known and well-respected genre of writing. Sort of like a romantic comedy movie is today. In apocalypses, certain things happen, because that’s just what you get when you read one. (Like, in a romantic comedy, you need to have a meet-cute, a sassy best friend, and several relatively-easily solved misunderstandings before the happy ending.) In apocalypses, it is understood that 1. Everything is awful, but in an allegorical way. 2. Events in heaven parallel events on earth. 3. God wins. God always wins.
The third one is most important—in apocalypses, the victor is never the most powerful. You dont’ write one if you have the biggest army, and the most guns. You write one if you are currently huddled in a cave, after your family has been arrested, and you are rationing out your last meal. The premise of the genre is that there is utterly no hope left, but SOMEHOW, God will intervene to save God’s people. You don’t know how, you don’t know when, and you won’t—but God will save God’s people, and restore justice to the universe, because that’s just what God does.
It won’t be fun, it won’t be pleasant, but God is coming to set things right.
Rudolf Otto was a smart German dude from the early twentieth century. The reason we remember him today is because he articulated a concept of the numinous in religious expression. Up until that point, religious practice had largely been seen by the academy in the West as functional, or a psychological manifestation. Otto, along with folks like William James, thought that it also had to be understood as an encounter with something “wholly other”—and that this common element could be described.
Otto called this common element the numinous—a thread that appears in all human religious expressions, and noted that this encounter with the transcendent, with the Divine—however humans term it, appears to have three common elements: 1. it is awe-inspiring. Generally, the experience creates unease, or fear. Think of Isaiah the prophet being called early in his book. He has a vision of God seated on the throne as smoke fills the temple, seraphim and cherubim flying every which way, and he panics. Think of literally everyone in the Bible to whom an angel appears. The first words are always “Fear not.”
Otto also says the numinous always makes a person feel small, in the scope of things. Like Job, when God shows up in the whirlwind. Where you there when I created the Leviathan? Or how you feel when you can see all the stars at once in the sky, and you suddenly remember how tiny you are.
Any time we encounter God, it takes courage. This is not a task for the complacent. When we allow God to break into our ordered worlds, that requires us to be brave, because it’s not very comfortable. Chances are, a lot will change. A lot will be exposed, and made clear, in the light of God’s in-breaking. When Jesus came to earth, it did not go the way anyone expected, really. Instead of the devoutly religious folks, the pious and the wealthy being the ones who were the first to get it, it was the marginalized, the poor, and the outcasts. The whole order of things got flipped around, and everyone had to readjust, but that’s what happens when you start to watch for the Spirit—when God breaks in. God requires us to be vulnerable, flexible, and ready to change when he appears—however and whenever that might be. Advent is all about making those preparations—about finding our courage, so we are ready for God, ready for Christ when he comes. These images of a world thrown into chaos—part of the reason they speak so well to us is because every time God calls us, it feels again like the world just got tilted upside down. Whether the world is actually literally ending or not.
There is one last way that Otto described the numinous experience. Lest you wonder that Advent sounds entirely like a weird sort of boot camp for the soul, Otto felt that the final common thread was something like kindness. (The German is complicated.) In essence, he thought that despite the fear inherent in such encounters, there was also something about the Divine that kept drawing humanity, and reassuring us—mercy, compassion, love, kindness—something. So no matter how overwhelmed humans might get, we kept heading back for more, always searching for God.
Yes, encountering God can be scary. But not encountering God? Having things remain the way they are? That’s scarier. Our world cries out in a thousand ways for God’s redeeming, chaotic presence, and never more so than today, when hope can be difficult to locate. But when we courageously invite God’s coming into the world, when we bravely embrace the child lying in the Manger, it is in that strange, upended moment that we can begin to see God bringing hope out of our world too.