The year was 1919, the year following the close of the World War I–the war that was supposed to end all wars. William Butler Yeats penned the Second Coming in response to the political turmoil across in aftermath of the Great War, and the upheaval caused by the Irish War of Independence in his homeland.
Yeats spoke of an Advent, though not an advent which culminates in “Good will to all people,” the warmth of home fires, or the serenity of the Christmas crèche on a calm starry night. His words terrify. He envisions political and social unrest giving birth to a beast. His poem anticipates the specter of Fascism which fall over Europe in the 20’s and 30’s:
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 Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The Second Coming has often been quoted and alluded to, to describe a world untethered. At the close of 2016, in the wake of fears of terror, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the poem was quoted more than in any other year than it has in the previous three decades.
Two years later, our anxiety about the state of things has yet to diminish. We binge watch the latest post-apocalyptic shows on Netflix and Hulu. We read our dystopia fiction. We watch the news with an expectant what now? We wonder how long until things fall apart and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. We know intimately the state of affairs: the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. But there are good people on both sides, or whatever.
The good news of Advent is that despite appearances, despite our fears and deep-seated anxiety, despite our cynicism about the state of the world, the end of all things is not dystopia, darkness and doom. The Apostle Paul* writes:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:15–20, NRSV)
The gospel tells us that God was at work in Christ, effecting the redemption of all things. Our New Testament ends with the cessation of suffering and pain, and a New Heaven and New Earth revealed(Rev 21-22). Yes, there will be terrible revelations at hand, rough beasts slouching toward Bethlehem, and things will fall apart. But the end of all things is renewal, redemption and reconciliation.
Things fall apart. It’s true. But there is One who can put it all back together.