A reflection on Advent and Time (with a little help from the Basis of Union and 2 Peter 3:8-15a)
“The Church lives between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring; the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come.”
Uniting Church in Australia, Basis of Union Paragraph 3 (Revised, 1992).
This confession in the Basis of Union, the key theological document of our Uniting Church, is steeped in Advent hope. Advent is a season with three horizons, of three comings.
On the one hand it is a season in which we prepare, again, to experience and remember the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, who “announced the sovereign grace of God whereby the poor in spirit could receive God’s love” (the Basis again).
On the other hand, it looks forward to the time when Jesus will come again, when Christ returns in glory to judge living and dead. Advent turns our eye to the “promised goal”, the “final consummation of all things”: where Christ will be all in all.
On the third hand (I should have chosen a better figure of speech) there is the perpetual horizon of our encounters with the Spirit of the Risen Christ, whereby “Christ reaches out to command people’s attention and awaken faith; he calls people into the fellowship of his sufferings, to be the disciples of a crucified Lord” (still the Basis). Christ comes, and comes, and comes – in sacrament, preaching, in the least of these, in human witness and the power of the Holy Spirit, and by that faith is awakened, hearts strangely warmed, imaginations shaped, and lives transformed!
But how? How can we wait for something that has already come, comes, and will come, how can Christ meet us in each moment, how can Christ be both at beginning and end, while also Emmanuel (God with us)?
Today’s reading offers us this: with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. For God, time is otherwise. Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word is Lord of Time and thus cannot be bound by it. This is where it is helpful to remember that eternity does not mean a really long time. When we think of God as eternal, we are not saying God is really old. It is not that God existed for 3,756,222 years before saying “Let there be light.”
When we think of ourselves as resurrected and brought into the New Heaven and New Earth to share in God’s eternity, it is not that we will simply experience our lives as they are now in time but just for a long, long, long, long, unendingly long time. Eternity is time otherwise – more moment than prolonged, it is about a different relationship toward time and finitude, not more of the same.
Eternity is the time where “righteousness is at home”, where the fear brought on by death and limit (a fear at the root of so much of the sin and brokenness of our world) is put to rest. Where the longing, regret, and anxiety brought on by an experience of finite time, bound by unchangeable past and uncontrollable future (an experience often at the root of apathy and tentativeness that halts our desire to seek the good) fades away. Eternity is the moment lived in perfect gratitude of God’s love and in perfect response to God’s commissioning. It may feel like it is known but through a glass dimly now, but it will be the defining character of the age to come.
If this feels a little esoteric and speculative let me seek to ground these reflections in how they change the way we live in between our three Advents, how we live in the cool shadow of eternity. The world offers lots of reasons to do good and to seek justice – some offer that the world is on some great march of progress, and so we want to be found ‘on the right side of history’.
However, this idea of progress is a distinctly Western one that often conflates moral virtue with technological development and ignores just how unequally the fruits of this progress are distributed (it is also a narrative rightly critiqued by the Indigenous Peoples of the land, for whom the history of colonised Australia is hardly characterised as progress). Alternatively, the world offers lots of reasons not to seek justice or do good – pointing the inability to act ethically in a corrupted world, or nihilistically claiming the un-fixable nature of the world and its future. This of course ignores that every person is a person and no suffering is a theory or justified by any level of pessimism.
Contra all of this, the Christian confession of God’s eternity and the world’s promised end, lead us to love kindness, do justice, and walk humbly with God because this is what is most true about our world, this is what most accurately captures the world as it is, should be, and will be in the city to come, when righteousness is at home. It also tells us that the acts of righteousness we muster in this life are – and can never be – for naught (however we may feel about them and their impact) because these moments are eternal, these acts are God’s.
We are freed then, to meet each moment not as one tied to an uncontrollable uncaring sequence of history, but simply as a moment where we are blessed to respond as a person who knows they live between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring.
Rev. Liam Miller is Sydney Central Coast Presbytery’s New Growth Minister.