Advent is a two-story house. Built on the foundation of Israel’s Messianic hope, it is when we prepare for Christmas—the coming of Christ, born as a babe in Bethlehem, our Incarnate Emmanuel.
But it also carries the nuances of Second Advent. Jesus came and will come again. So, traditionally this has been a season to prepare our hearts for Christmas, but also a time to set our own house in order as we prepare for Christ’s return.
A lot of my Advent reflections have focused on this second meaning of Advent, the coming Kingdom of God and how everything wrong in the world will one day be set to rights. Jesus’ first Advent was foretold, and hoped for and prophesied about. However, when the day came, it was a complete surprise. The Redeemer was here, and nobody expected his birth would be anything like this: Angelic visitations, a virgin birth, a chorus of angels, and a star to light the way for travelers from the East. It happened the way it needed to happen, but not like anyone thought it would.
I wonder if this aspect of Jesus’ first Advent tells us something about the way we shall be likewise surprised by Jesus’ Advent.
Czesław Miłosz’s poem, “A Song on the End of the World,” plays with the way the end defies expectations:
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.
On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.
And those who expected lightning and thunder
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.
Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophetWarsaw, 1944
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be
What strikes me about Milosz’s poem is the ordinariness of the “end.” Fishermen mend their nets, a happy porpoise jumps, the birds flit about, women walk with their umbrellas, there is shouting in the marketplace, a drunk lies on the edge of the lawn, sleeping off last night’s good times. A yellow sailboat nears the island and there is violin music in the air.
This doesn’t sound like the end, and it wasn’t what anyone expected. The sun and the moon are still in the sky, bees on the rose bush, babies are born. Milosz says those who expected lightning and thunder are disappointed. The would-be-but-too-busy prophet binds his tomatoes and says, “No other end of the world will there be.”
The Bible’s Apocalyptic literature (Daniel and Revelation) speak of the world ending. There are Seals and Trumpets and Bowls, oh my! The Sun turns to blood, there are beasts and multi-horned dragons, earthquakes, pestilence, and war. But also a garden city, the New Jerusalem, and a new heaven and earth. The old gone and all things made new.
Revelation does tell us about the future, but to make all about the future, is to miss the point. Apocalyptic literature wasn’t so much about some coming end, as it is about how the world as we know it just ended. There was some cataclysmic shift and everything was changed. The same way that today we might talk about how a new idea or a new lover rocked our world, the ancient writers painted a picture of their world’s destruction and the new world emerging.
For John of Patmos, the world became New when he trusted his life to Jesus. Still, old worlds died hard, and those who were faithful to Jesus were persecuted. The war between the Beast and the Lamb was/is a conflict between the old order and new order of God’s coming Kingdom. John recorded his revelation so that those who struggled to remain faithful to Christ in the midst of persecution from Imperial Rome would have the courage and resilience to stay the course.
Milosz wrote his poem in Warsaw, 1944. The fact that he highlighted the ordinariness of daily life, doesn’t mean his world wasn’t ending. The Nazis had invaded Poland in 1939, but Germany’s grip on Poland was waning. This was the year of the Warsaw Uprising. Germany was retreating and the Soviets were advancing. The Resistance timed their revolt to coincide with this Soviet advance, but the USSR halted their forward movement, leaving the Resistance to fight it out with their German occupiers. After 63 days of fighting, the Nazi’s defeated the Polish Resistance. 16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed, 6,000 badly wounded and 150,000-200,000 Polish civilians died, mostly by mass executions. 85% of the city was destroyed. Milosz said later that the Soviets watched with binoculars while the city was decimated.
Fishermen mended their nets as the porpoise played, the birds flitted, the drunk slept. No thunder or trumpets, but the world ended. For those who remained, reality forever changed.
I don’t know when or how Jesus will return. I don’t expect a trumpet blast, the sky to crack or the moon to turn to blood. These are all ancient metaphor for a catalysmic shift. The kingdom of God may roar or come in like a whisper. It may feel ordinary—the would-be-prophet bagging your tomatoes at Food For Less and no fanfare or pyrotechnics. Or perhaps there will be blood, war, and destruction. Systems of oppression do not die easily. But when the world ends, the lamb wins, sorrow and injustice are no more.