Advent: Labor Pains and the End of the World
“Save some water for the fishies!” I picked up that expression from my husband who yells it at our girls when he get’s worried that they are about to take a 30 minute shower. I called out my co-worker with that expression when he left the water running in the sink at work for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time. “It’s all gonna burn anyway!” He replied with a smirk. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, but that’s not the first time I had heard such sentiments. As a young adult in church, images of the end of the world were not uncommon. From the end-times movie series “A Thief in the Night” of the late 70s to the more recent “Left Behind” series, vivid images of this world going to hell in a handbasket became popular in the late 20th century. While these apocalyptic science-fiction stories are based on a few passages from the Bible, are they merely fiction? Is it really “all gonna burn”? If it’s “all gonna burn” anyway, do we have any responsibility for creation care? And why are we so quick to hold onto the fire and brimstone metaphors anyway?
As we continue in this Advent season, a season of hope, we may be tempted to look around us and lose hope. Surely, there are wars and rumours of wars, famines and earthquakes, the end must be coming soon. Jesus must be ready to return any day now, so we must focus on saving as many souls as possible for an eternal future in heaven with God. “We don’t have time to worry about the environment,” we say. “Earthquakes and hurricanes are signs of the earth groaning for Jesus to return and a judgement on those who are evil and wicked in God’s sight,” we proclaim on our twitter feeds, facebook statuses and personal blogs.
Apocalyptic Metaphors and A Heaven/Earth Dualism
When we think about the end, and whether we admit it or not, most of us do think about the end, how do we imagine the new creation? What images come to mind? Do we envision, like some who have gone before, a catastrophic destruction of planet earth while we wait somewhere as disembodied souls for the creation of the new heavens and the new earth? When we read the passages in the Bible that talk about fire, and judgement, do we eagerly anticipate such destruction – hoping those wicked evildoers will finally get their just rewards? Do we imagine God is like the most amazing player in Call of Duty able to get to the highest level possible and defeat all the Nazi Zombies and save the world? Anne Lamott quotes her priest friend as saying, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Is it the Biblical text that is fueling our penchant for fire and brimstone metaphors for the end of the world or is it our own malformed understanding of justice?
Philosophers and theologians alike agree that what we think about death and life beyond it are relevant to our thinking about anything else. N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope says our thinking about death, and life beyond, provide one of the main reasons for thinking seriously about anything at all! So, our images and metaphors for the “death” or end of the world as we know it shape and inform much of our thinking about everything else. I’m not sure metaphors and images of destruction and damnation are the most helpful images to focus on for a people of hope. So, let’s look at another, more hopeful metaphor that is appropriate for this time of Advent – the metaphor of birth.
The New Testament offers this image as seen in these passages about the new creation as a new birth:
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Messiah!” and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
We see this image of a woman giving birth again in Revelation 12.
I wonder, what would a shift in our focus of God’s good future for creation to an image of new birth do for us in how we care for the earth and care for one another?
As a woman who has given birth to four children, perhaps I can help you imagine how this might change your thinking. When I was pregnant, I was very careful to take better care of myself. With my third child, I even bought a book called “Super-Immunity for Kids” and instead of just taking the prescribed prenatal vitamin, I took a whole cupboard full of vitamins recommended in the book. It was around that time that I had begun going to a naturopathic doctor for my primary care. My husband was suspicious at first, calling him a voodoo doctor, but after seeing the health benefits of his care, he lovingly calls him the vitamin doctor now. I made sure I ate right and exercised regularly. I used those cheesy pregnancy exercise videos right up until the day I went into to labor with my girls. I surrounded myself with a community of care, from health care providers to friends and relatives supporting me and praying for me. It was a lot of work, but as most mothers will testify, the pains of labor pale once the newborn is held in your arms. This image of new birth is a powerful metaphor.
Both Jesus and Paul, as well as John in Revelation use this image of new birth. N.T. Wright suggests that Paul’s use of the metaphor of birth pangs “shows that what he has in mind is not the unmaking of creation or simply its steady development but the drastic and dramatic birth of new creation from the womb of the old.” Why is it so hard for us to imagine the end of the world using metaphors and images of new birth instead of radical destruction and fiery judgement?
Trauma and Fear
Many of us have experienced great evil in this world. Whether through personal trauma – participation in war zones such as Iraq or Afghanistan, childhood abuse, loved ones lost to cancer, violence done to us in our homes or elsewhere, or through observing disease, violence and evil in the world around us – like senseless school shootings where innocent children die, we have seen the face of evil. In times like these, it’s easy for us to fear that things will only get worse. We want the pain and suffering to end and are looking for a way of escape. Many of us have experienced more pain and trauma than any human should have to bear. We long for justice, we want the wrongs done to us and to others made right. We want mercy for ourselves, but we cling to the passages in the Bible that promise God’s wrath upon the wicked evildoers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who witnessed and suffered some of the greatest evil in our recent cultural memories in Nazi Germany, writes, “Where we do not recognize God as the merciful Creator, we can know God only as the wrathful judge – that is, only standing in relation to the middle, between the beginning and the end.” When Bonhoeffer talks about this idea of standing in relation to the middle, he is speaking of our limited position apart from Christ. Jesus is the one who enables us to see God as the merciful creator of a good creation. Christ is the one who is both beginning and end, and enables us to see the beginning from the view of the end of all things.
Hope for the Future
It is only through Christ that we can understand the end of all things, for Christ is the end. It is through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that we have hope and can even glimpse God’s good future. Christ proclaims that he is the first-born of the new creation and we will be the first-fruits. He has already conquered sin and death. We are living in the time of the now and the not yet – we are beginning the see the new birth of God’s Kingdom breaking through and healing all of creation, but it has only just begun. The in-breaking of God’s Kingdom is moving us toward a restoration of all things. We are invited to participate as cooperative friends of Jesus in this restoration project. We are not left on our own, but through the indwelling life of the Spirit, we are inspired and empowered to participate in God’s creative goodness for the sake of others.
This new creation is not an individualistic idea, as we often imagine when we read 2 Corinthians 5:16-21:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
As some of my favorite preachers have been known to say, “The Greek word for everything means EVERYTHING!” New creation is not limited to our spiritual selves, as if we are bodies containing souls. We are made whole in Christ – body, soul, spirit – an integrated whole person. And we are not isolated from others or the created world around us. God is reconciling us and the whole world to himself! We are interdependent not only with God through the life of Christ and the power of the Spirit, but we are interdependent with one to another, and we are interdependent with all of creation. Life after death is not limited to our souls escaping this wicked and evil world, life after death is about new life, new creation – a new world being birthed out of the world created for our good from the beginning.
At this time of Advent, let us adopt a posture of hope and learn to care for all of creation, as an expectant mother and her community care for the new life and the body which carries it. It is right and good to care for creation, and because we are a people who embody the virtue of hope, we do the right thing. Just as God planted the seed of Jesus in the womb of Mary, God has planted the seed of Jesus, the new Adam, in the womb of the world.
In this season, amidst the struggle of pain and sorrow, may we not forget the meaning of Advent:
Advent, meaning “the coming,” is a time when we wait expectantly. Christians began to celebrate it as a season during the fourth and fifth centuries. Like Mary, we celebrate the coming of the Christ child, what God has already done. And we wait in expectation of the full coming of God’s reign on earth and for the return of Christ, what God will yet do. But this waiting is not a passive waiting. It is an active waiting. As any expectant mother knows, this waiting also involves preparation, exercise, nutrition, care, prayer, work; and birth involves pain, blood, tears, joy, release, community. It is called labor for a reason. Likewise, we are in a world pregnant with hope, and we live in the expectation of the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. As we wait, we also work, cry, pray, ache; we are the midwives of another world. (from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals)