Advent, the four-week period preceding Christmas, began yesterday, December 1. Incidentally, the first day of Advent, always a Sunday, marks the first day of a new Christian year even though the Church observes the visitation of the angel to Mary on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation to Mary by the angel Gabriel, nine months before the commemoration of Jesus' birth on December 25.
In Advent, Christians prepare for their annual celebration of Jesus' birth and look forward to Christ coming again. The stories of Jesus' birth, found in only two of the four Biblical biographies of Jesus (the gospels of Matthew and Luke), tell very different versions of that story; sometimes the two even include sharply contradictory details. Thus, these stories are clearly not historical accounts but theological narratives by which the authors hoped to share their interpretation of the Jesus event with readers. Subsequent Ethical Musings postings, closer to Christmas, will unpack some of the contemporary meaning and relevance of these stories.
Similarly, the Biblical materials that many people use to discern God's plan for the future (and perhaps God's timetable for that plan) are mostly descriptions of what the authors had personally experienced and not prophecy, e.g., the Revelation of John is a description of early Roman persecution of Christians and not prophecy about the future. The Bible's authors used symbols and the future tense to disguise their real message, widely regarded as subversive, from the authorities. Sadly, their technique has also confused generations of Christians. For an example of how these stories can be meaningful, cf. Ethical Musings Rethinking eschatology (the study of end times).
Some years ago, I read this marvelous story:
A traveler arrived in a village in the middle of winter to find an old man shivering in the cold outside the synagogue. 'What are you doing here?' asked the traveler.
'I'm waiting for the coming of the Messiah.'
'That must be an important job,' said the traveler. 'The community must pay you a lot of money.'
'No, not at all. They just let me sit here on this bench. Once in a while someone gives me a little food.'
'That must be hard. But even if they don't pay you, they must honor you for doing this important work.'
'No, not at all they think that I'm crazy.'
'I don't understand. They don't pay you; they don't respect you. You sit in the cold, shivering and hungry. What kind of job is this?'
'Well, it's steady work,' said the old man as he shivered some more. (David Heim, "A Joking Matter," Christian Century, 9 August 2003, p. 29.)
Although the story is Jewish, the old man might easily have been a Jewish Christian awaiting the Messiah's return. The futility of the man's commitment, and the community's lack of support for the man and their lack of belief in the Messiah's coming, mirrors the lip service many Christians pay to traditional theological affirmations that Christ will come again, e.g., as found in the Nicene Creed and Eucharistic Prayers in the Book of Common Prayer.
An alternative and more credible explanation of the Biblical hope of Maranatha! (Come again!) is one of a realized eschatology. That is, when we meet God in this world, then we experience Jesus' return in our thoughts, our relationships, and our actions. The fulfillment of creation is not some miraculous deed that God will unilaterally perform, intervening in the cosmos and disrupting what is happening. The fulfillment of creation will result from people (and all creation!) living into the future in hopeful and loving obedience to the Creator.
'Come Again?' we ask, meaning, 'Please tell me
One more time, I didn't quite catch your message.'
'Come again?' Daily praying without knowing it;
This, earliest of invocations, 'Maranatha - Come again!'
He does, of course, in daily bread and Bibles,
Sunday pulpits, tables too, calls to love and duty, most
Especially through this leaning forward season
When winter's white moves greening toward Bethlehem.
The word is 'Come again.'
(J. Barrie Shepherd, "Repetition," Christian Century, December 12, 1979, p. 1240)