This is not an Advent of vengeance
The “coming of the Son of Man” that Jesus foretells in this Sunday’s Gospel is a technical expression that refers to the day when Christ will return to judge the world in glory. For some Christians, this passage lends itself to “rapture” theology, a belief that, just before the day of judgment, those who profess the name of Christ will be taken suddenly into heaven while others will be left behind to suffer calamity. In fact, I learned a Mexican version of this from my mother, who spoke in hushed tones of los tres días de oscuridad, “three days of darkness” (see Rv 11:9-12).
Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. (Mt 24:40)
As we begin Advent, what spiritual preparation do you need to embrace?
Are there any signs of warning that your faith community ought to consider?
How do you explain texts of terror found in the Bible?
The audience for this Sunday’s Gospel passage is wider than a chosen few, however. By comparing the final judgment to Noah's flood, which swept away every living thing except those that found safety in Noah's ark, it offers a warning to the whole world. Advent starts with a warning that, for many, Christ's arrival might be painful.
The scholar Phyllis Trible has reflected extensively on the phenomenon of divine violence in Scripture. These “texts of terror,” as she calls them, comprise a biblical genre with a very specific message: divine presence can at times be disruptive. The following suggestions, provoked by Trible’s challenge to reflect on such troubling passages, can help navigate the irony of beginning Advent with images of catastrophe.
The foremost insight is that this warning arises from Jesus’ understanding of divine love. A God who warns humanity about the severity of divine justice is a God who does in fact care about us and the consequences of our actions. Throughout the Bible, God foresees the consequences of human behavior and attempts to intervene to save us from ourselves.
Another insight is that these warnings are not threats of divine vengeance, but rather intimations of ordeals that will transform the hearts of all humanity. This is clearest in certain historical books like Judith, “In spite of everything let us give thanks to the Lord our God, who is putting us to the test as he did our ancestors. For he has not tried us with fire, as he did them, to search their hearts, nor has he taken vengeance on us; but the Lord scourges those who are close to him in order to admonish them” (Jdt 8:25-27). The same theme underlies the image in Is 2:4, from this Sunday's first reading, when the prophet foretells the day that God will call all humanity to judgment. In fact, the nod to Noah’s flood from our Gospel today also ties judgment to all of humanity. If all will be judged then by implication all can be saved.
If one reads only this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, it can appear that God’s anointed arrived on a mission of vengeance. By contrast, the warning in this Sunday’s Gospel takes on a hopeful character in the context of the other readings. These provide us with images like waking up from sleep (Rom 13:11), walking in the light of instruction (Is 2:5) and praying for the peace of Jerusalem (Ps 122:6). In this context, the path from this Sunday’s Gospel reading to the arrival of the newborn Prince of Peace becomes clear. Jesus’ warning about “the coming of the Son of Man” is not a threat of divine vengeance. It is rather an exhortation to redouble our efforts to fulfill Isaiah’s vision of humanity:, “One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again” (Is 2:4)