By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
In college I took a class about religion in American literature. Along with Moby Dick, Bless Me, Ultima, and other literary classics wrestling with momentous spiritual questions, we read Left Behind. (Thus began a head-scratching fondness for the evangelical apocalyptic imagination that has led me to watch far too many Kirk Cameron movies.)
On the last day of discussing the book in class, we arrived early to arrange extra sets of clothes on our chairs and place our books as though we were about to turn a page; we then snuck down the hall far enough to be out of sight but within listening distance when our professor walked in to realize we had been raptured while he had been—alas—left behind.
Our practical joke was meant all in good fun, as no one in the class actually subscribed to the spiritual body-snatching depicted in the book. But reading the lectionary passage for the first Sunday in Advent reminded me that this imagery, however absurd to mainline Christians, comes straight from Jesus’ mouth—or at least straight from Matthew’s pen.
It’s an odd choice, in some ways, for an Advent passage. We use it to look toward the coming of the Christ Child, yet it primarily speaks to a second coming when the Son of Man will return to judge humanity by our behavior towards one another. The passage is followed by several parables about staying awake, and then the infamous separation of the sheep and the goats according to their treatment of Jesus disguised as “the least of these:” “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)
In other words, contrary to the way that Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have depicted it, whether we’re raptured won’t depend on whether we believed a particular doctrine or dogma about Jesus, but on how faithful we are in responding with compassion and justice to our fellow human beings in today’s version of Jesus in disguise: those dealing with food insecurity and poisoned water, those vilified and rejected as immigrants or refugees in a strange land, those enduring inhumane working conditions that we might buy cheap clothing, those stigmatized and secluded by mental or chronic illness, those incarcerated by a system increasingly marred by racism and the criminalization of the poor.
Although we may fail to live up to this ideal as regularly as we might like, we do know that part of celebrating Christ’s coming is about giving to others. It’s no coincidence that Advent has been translated into the secular Christmas season during which we’re all encouraged to follow Scrooge’s example of “keep[ing] Christmas well” by spreading goodwill and showering generosity on our families, friends, coworkers, and even strangers. As a country we make 30% of our charitable gifts in December, while other months average just over 6%; and 38% of Americans who donate to charity said that they are more likely to do so during the holiday season.
But this passage reminds us that such concentrated kindness is missing the point. It makes it seem like we’ve managed to figure out when Jesus is really coming so we can look especially good—despite the fact that “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour,” unknown even to him (verse 44). Perhaps, thanks in part to this lectionary passage, we’ve all conflated Jesus’ nativity with his second coming. It’s easier, after all, to mark off a season or a date like Giving Tuesday (or the last day your donations will count towards 2016 tax deductions) than to live at a heightened level of generosity and kindness all year long.
One clue we might be doing it wrong is the rather violent images Jesus uses to describe the unexpected advent of the Messiah. The one to judge the nations will appear like the flood in Noah’s days, and those of us busy with the mundane activities of life will know “nothing” until we are “swept away” by the raging waters (verses 38-39). Or he will show up as the terrifying sound of glass shattering when a burglar attempts to invade our homes while we sleep. The contrast with the Jesus we know and love as the Prince of Peace seems absurd.
I think these disturbing illustrations of being caught unawares are meant to shock us into realizing that what we’ve come to see as the status quo—spending extravagantly on material gifts instead of causes that promote justice and mercy, or restricting the majority of our do-gooding to one twelfth of the year—is not the status kindom. Eating, drinking, sleeping, and certainly celebrating marriages aren’t by themselves moral evils—they are necessary and even joyous parts of life. But as Scrooge learned, if we cannot do them with an eye (and an action) towards those who cannot eat, drink, sleep, or celebrate due to ostracism, poverty, or oppression, we’re in for a rude awakening when God calls us to account.
No one should have better cause to protest such a rude awakening than the Bishop of Digne from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Despite his position of power and influence, the bishop lives a life of simplicity and generosity towards those in need. As a matter of course he shelters Jean Valjean, a convict newly freed after an outrageous 19 years’ imprisonment for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. When Valjean becomes a literal thief in the night and makes off with the rectory silver, the bishop has every right to demand justice with righteous indignation. Instead, confronted by the gendarmes who have collared the scruffy Valjean in possession of expensive cutlery, he chides Valjean for not having taken the silver candlesticks too, as part of his gift. The bishop explains his version of justice to his flabbergasted housekeeper: “I have for a long time detained that silver wrongfully. It belonged to the poor. Who was that man? A poor man, evidently.” Being taken advantage of in this way would shock and infuriate most of us to our core. Even further from our repertoire would be the impulse to exonerate the thief and show him or her additional kindness.
(Valjean, it should be noted, was astounded by the bishop’s love for a complete stranger who has wronged him; this unexpected compassion is the beginning of his conversion to a life of caring for those on the margins.)
The bishop’s response may seem absurd, yet it is entirely consistent with Jesus’ admonition to “keep awake:” to live at all times as though Jesus was serious about the way we treat those society deems unstable, worthless, or even morally bankrupt; to live so that when Jesus comes—in December or at any time—we are ready.
Beginning in this Advent season, may we keep Christmas in such a way that we are never surprised by the coming of the Son of Man.
A Midwest transplant to the South, The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is ordained in the United Church of Christ (UCC) and serves as a preaching pastor at Decatur UCC in Atlanta. She works bi-vocationally as an administrator for a PC(USA) church; if one day she serves a church with its own administrator, she plans to treat that person like royalty. She’s also a mama, pastor’s wife, and Head Thriftvangelist over at www.thriftshopchic.com.