I was probably not a very pious little boy. Even so, my little boy’s imagination was gripped by religion. One of the notions to grip it was the possibility that the world could end at any moment. I remember walking down a steep Dunedin street with a friend – we can’t have been older than seven – shouting, “the world could end… NOW! The world could end… NOW!” Every time we yelled “NOW” we screamed with laughter and stamped our feet into the pavement – as if just this combination of words and acts would bring Jesus back to earth and the universe, with all its teeming galaxies and vast expanses, to a fiery demise.
I’m not sure where I got this idea from. Catholicism, especially 1970s New Zealand Catholicism, wasn’t big on the end of the world. Granted, every Sunday at Mass we confessed that, “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” But I don’t think anyone had a precise timetable in mind.
So I was confused many years later, when an intelligent American postgrad asked over coffee if I was “pre-mil,” “post-mil,” or an “a-mil.” These terms, familiar to a certain kind of American Protestant, were completely new to me. They exposed me to a sub-culture in which Christians still do anxiously speculate about the precise timetable for Jesus’s return, sometimes in astonishing detail.
Why do I mention this in the season of Baby Jesus, decking the halls, holly and jolly? Because the “Advent” – the coming or arrival – to which this season refers isn’t primarily that of Baby Jesus. After all, Baby Jesus has already come. Rather, they refer to the coming mentioned in the apocalyptic texts of Scripture: of Jesus the judge, the one descending on the clouds, the Alpha and Omega, the rider on the white horse, his eyes as a flame of fire, his robe dipped in blood, etc. As anyone who’s had the doubtful pleasure of watching New Zealand’s First Light channel will be aware, Seventh Day Adventists, aren’t called “Adventists” because they like picking chocolate out of calendars. It’s because they’re focussed – sometimes minutely so – on Jesus’s second “advent” or arrival.
Christianity has never not been without this obsession. In fact, one of the striking things about the history of Christianity is how regular and respectable End Time predictions have been (regular, respectable, and wrong, of course). On the other hand, since at least the fourth century, the apocalypticism woven into Christianity’s DNA has competed with a countervailing agnosticism. This is famously summed up in Augustine’s exasperated rebuke to those who thought the wickedness of the age heralded the End Times:
People talk about ‘evil times,’ and ‘troubling times.’ Let us live well and the times will be good. The times are us; as we are, so are the times. Sermo 80.8.
In other words, you’d do better to devote your short attention-spans to living better lives, than to prepping for Armageddon, while wagging your finger at everyone else.
That advice has probably been heeded by much of Christianity most of the time since then. It probably still represents the dominant outlook in New Zealand Christianity today.
Even so, the sense of a more imminent doom has never gone completely underground. Indeed, as popular culture and global events bear witness, you don’t need to be Christian – or even religious – to have a nagging sense that it could all be over soon.
And here’s where I end, in full-throated, radio vicar, Thought-for-the-Day mode. One of the salutary functions of Advent is to remind us that, sooner or later – maybe very soon, maybe much later – it will end for each of us. As someone who loathes paperwork, I am very fond of advice I first heard from Dame Cicely Saunders, one of the founders of the hospice movement:
Whoever said on his death bed, ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office?’
Still, given that my world might end “NOW,” or even “NOW,” I suppose that I should learn to spend even that time in the office as well as I can – and the times outside it even better.