First Sunday of Advent | Luke 21:25-36
Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary
Fig Tree at the End of the World
Fig trees are not early risers. At least, none of the figs that I have known—and that is more than you might think—ever grew leaves until it was clear that summer was underway. Everything else might be growing and green, but figs stand there, stick figures among the verdant growth of spring.
Whoever wrote the Gospel of Luke must have had the same experience. This fig tree passage was lifted from the earlier Gospel of Mark, but to “look at the fig tree” the author of Luke adds “and all the trees.”
Maybe the fig tree is a suitable choice. After all, Jesus isn’t pointing to an early warning system. He’s talking about the last minute buzzer. When the bunch of sticks that is your fig tree starts growing leaves, the end is nigh.
What end is that? The end of the world, judgment, trumpets, angels, lakes of fire and streets of gold?
Maybe. Plenty of literal minded Christians think so. Perhaps it is even useful to look forward to an impending judgment day: it keeps people in line, moderates behavior, contributes to a stable and law abiding society.
On the other hand, there is an alternative reading, a sort of theological minority report. Maybe the end is more personal, more existential. Rather than the end being nigh for everyone, everywhere, all at once, perhaps we might consider that each of us hears the trumpet blowing on our personal judgment day.
You can see how it can make the passage work, how everything Jesus predicts can be understood as applying to our individual lives.
Contemplating our own individual apocalypse takes away our ability to deny such a day might happen—everybody dies, so far anyway. There is no getting around it. And our personal fig tree? The older we get, the more leaves that thing grows.
Wait a moment, you say. This is the first Sunday in Advent. Isn’t this a time to contemplate the coming of the Lord, Emmanuel, God with us? Isn’t this when we look forward to Christmas and celebrate joy, love and peace? What’s with the little apocalypse speech?
You might ask whether we have to hear about hell and damnation again? Isn’t that sort of thing one reason so many people are leaving the Church and organized religion behind? They are tired of hearing about hell, the end of the world, and a God who appears to be imaginary?
After all, it’s been two thousand years since Jesus made those claims, and nothing whatsoever has happened.
The trumpet hasn’t sounded, angels haven’t flocked in from wherever they flock, and the world hasn’t come to an end. Nothing has happened.
And everything has happened. All of it has happened. All of it keeps on happening, to each of us, and our world ends, every single time.
The greatest delusion is not that God exists. The greatest delusion is that we will never die.
Ask anyone, anyone sane, and she will tell you that death is inevitable. Watch how she lives, though, and it is apparent that she does not believe it. Count the hours wasted, the petty pursuits, and you will conclude that your subject believes she will live forever. Truth be told, it is very much how most of us live.
Have you ever heard a very old person, near death, complain that it took so long in coming? Perhaps, but it is far more common that humans are mystified by the passage of time. We are amazed to find ourselves at the exit, to realize that we are hearing a trumpet solo, experiencing our own version of Christ coming again in clouds to make everything new.
Where does the time go?
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.”
This is still pretty depressing stuff, you say. So death comes to everyone—it isn’t news, and it isn’t inspiring.
Jesus is saying that it ought to be. The length of a life is measured in time, but the value of a life is measured in joy and in peace and in love. As Tennyson said, As tho’ to breathe were life!
Life is an allowance. Spend it well.
Life is valuable. Keep your eyes on it.
Life is an opportunity. Use it.
Life is all we have. Live it.
Remember, that fig tree is going to grow leaves sooner than we think. In a way, all those crazy religious fanatics are right, and the end of the world is coming—yours and mine. We don’t know much about what happens in the next world, but that will take care of itself. Meanwhile, remember to live in this one.
From Ulysses, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson…
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.