(Note: This is the final in a series of posts on heaven and hell, or probably better, the "final things," for which theologians use the term, eschatology.)
Few have offered a more gripping introduction to the theme of the Second Coming than the poet, W.B. Yeats (no friend to orthodox Christianity) in his 1921 poem of the same name:
TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Bible offers language no less world-ending, world-transforming, and world-beginning event. It first foretells and then promises Christ’s Second Coming. The Hebrew Scriptures provide the backdrop for his return. Jesus employed a key Old Testament concept, the Son of Man (here the traditional and literal rendering of ben adam) to describe the event of his return. In the Book of Daniel, the setting is Israel’s captivity under the oppressive thumb of Babylon following the destruction of the prized city of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Daniel has visions of four kingdoms—Babylonian, Median, Persian, Greek—represented by a lion, a bear, a four-headed winged leopard, and a ten-horned dragon-like beast. Then comes the establishment of a fifth, eternal kingdom. Jewish tradition interprets this final kingdom as the Messiah’s. (By the way, “Messiah” and “Christ” represent the same meaning in Hebrew and Greek respectively. Both mean literally “the anointed.”) Christian biblical scholars, with an eye toward God’s coming as a human being in Christ, highlight that animals symbolized the previous kingdoms and that here the kingdom comes in a human form as the Son of Man.
As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like the Son of Man
Coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
And was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
And glory and kingship,
That all peoples, nations, and languages
Should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
That shall not pass away,
And his kingship is one
That shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)
Jesus reshapes this figure of the Son of Man and thus refashions expectations for Messiah (a crucial sticking point in Jewish-Christian dialogue). Instead of one advent as a politically dominant liberator, the Messiah appears twice. He comes in the meekness of a baby and returns as the righteous and powerful Savior and Judge. The first time arrives with the opportunity to turn our lives around, “Repent, and believe in the good news!” (Mark 1:15). On the second time, the opportunity for repentance has passed. In Matthew 24 (told in parallel in Mark 13 and Luke 21), Jesus looks toward the end of history. He foresees that signs and particularly suffering will proceed the end when the Son of Man will appear to gather the elect.
Immediately after the suffering of those days
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
and the powers of heaven will be shaken.
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:29-31).
But Jesus quickly adds, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven nor the Son, but only the Father” (24:36).
In Matthew 25, Jesus follows this prediction with three parables. One concerns ten bridesmaids, only half of whom prepared for the customary arrival of the bridegroom. The second describes three recipients of various amounts of money or “talents,” a huge sum in the first century. The boss gives them five million dollars, two and half million, and half a million (in today’s terms). He then encourages them to invest. Finally, a shepherd separates the righteous “sheep” from the unrighteous “goats” based on their good deeds toward society’s outcasts. Though each has its unique features, the similarities speak most clearly. All depict a separation of two types of response—bold investing vs. fearful inactivity, attentive preparation vs. lazy indolence, unselfconscious compassion vs. inattentive hard-heartedness. Each parable encourages action in light of a cataclysmic moment. All describe some period of delay during which we wait and work. All three parables remind us to be ready and awake. (A single Greek word, gregoreo, stands behind this combination, and since it represents the root of my first name, I could not pass up the opportunity to mention it.)
Jesus does not command an emotion, but a healthy expectation that transforms everything we do. C. S. Lewis explains it this way:
We cannot always be excited. We can, perhaps, train ourselves to ask more and more often how the thing which we are saying or doing (or failing to do) at each moment will look when the irresistible light streams in upon it; that light which is so different from the light of this world—and yet, even now, we know just enough of it to take it into account.
This call to be “gregoreo” encourages neither unreasonable excitement nor fearful paralysis. Instead it calls us to act today because we live under the promise of fulfillment. The parables all lead to greater rewards: attending a joyous wedding, receiving more money, “entering into the joy of your master.”
I imagine an analogy. I have seen many promising artists wait for their break in New York City. You are a starving young jazz pianist. Every day you practice, hoping to be discovered. Most of your hours are filled with waiting tables in order to pay the bills so that you can audition. And, even after years of hard work, nothing’s happening. On a random Tuesday morning, you are in a church sanctuary, working through your standard practice regime, engaging your gift and passion for the piano. Unceremoniously, a stranger walks in. He listens attentively, but without interruption. When you are finished, you are greeted with applause and these words, “Hi, I’m Wynton Marsalis, and I need a pianist for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Are you free?”