By Father Bud Grant
Advent began with apocalyptic warnings; it ends with eschatological promises. Having been subjected to images of cosmic destruction and fire, now we are treated to visions of a new home.
It is as if we are moving backwards: from John’s Jordan wilderness to Mary’s miraculous Galilee; from dire threat of its razing to the promise of raising the Temple. Threats and promises … these are the same prophetic sentiment, different only in intonation. (“If you are a good girl,” we tell our children, “Santa will visit our home.” Or we might say, “If you don’t stop misbehaving, Santa will skip our house.” Either way, kids get it, right?)
The green dimension of the threatening eschatology has been explored, now we can glean the promise for the earth in these last-of-season passages from the images of the Promised Land (EReTZ, in Hebrew, also meaning “earth”) and Home (oikos, in Greek, rooted in our word “ecosystem”).
In his brilliant examination of the notion of “The Land,” biblical exegete Walter Bruggeman points out that, in the Hebrew Bible, the relative health of the relationship between God and God’s people is discerned by knowing where the people are. If they occupy the Promised Land, then the relationship is sound; if they have been banished from it, the relationship has been wounded by sin, usually associated with depriving the poor of the land’s bounty. If the people are threatened with its loss, then prophets plead with the people to repent and with God to forbear. If they are promised with its return, then the prophets thank God and exhort the people in their resolve. Salvation history in the Old Testament, then, charts this cyclical pattern from landed to threat, from loss to promise; from Eden to Exile and Exodus to Espoused (c.f. Is. 62.5)… endlessly.
The Promised Land constitutes the grand eschatological promise to the Hebrew people. The Advent of the Messiah, appropriately, then, comes at a time when The Land was ruled by increasingly abusive puppet kings bolstered by ruthless foreign occupiers.
By the time the New Testament was recorded, the disciples of Christ were a persecuted diaspora scattered across the Roman empire as homeless refugees, lovingly reflected in Luke’s migrant Holy Family. The images of late Advent, consolingly, focus sharply on the image of home: “The Lord reveals to you that he will establish a house for you … your house … shall endure forever … (II Sam. 7:16).
Upon these central images of home and land are layered the great eschatological images of kingdom and throne, ruler and savior: “the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever” (Lk. 1: 33). But these ancient prophesies are radically altered, especially by Luke: the throne is a feeding trough, the warrior savior has become a refugee baby, the house is a stable, the Promised Land is not contained by the borders of Israel, and most exquisitely, the Temple is now the body of Jesus, Incarnate Christ, Emmanuel, God with us (Mt. 1:23).
The eschatological ecology is domesticated, or at least a managed wilderness, where wolves and lambs, leopards and kids, calf and lion cubs browse together (Is. 11:6), valleys are filled in and hills made low, lambs are carried and ewes led with care (c.f. Is. 40:1-11); the earth brings forth its plants and a garden makes its growth spring up (c.f. Is. 61:1-11). Truth springs out of the earth and justice looks down from heaven (Ps. 85:12). The green promise of the end of Advent is the stunningly unexpected fulfillment of God’s promise of home and land through the union of divinity and flesh in the Incarnate Christ, in whom the whole of creation is recreated anew, transformed and redeemed.
(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)