Advent’s Apocalyptic Unsettling

A reflection by Rev. Dr. Jay Emerson Johnson

Tucked away between Thanksgiving and Christmas are the four Sundays of Advent. I love this season, in part because it’s one of the more counter-cultural moments on the Christian calendar. While the wider society gears up for a consumerist blitz, the new liturgical year begins, not with the baby Jesus in a manger, but with the second coming of Christ at the end of time.

The season begins with a whole array of apocalyptic biblical texts, which can certainly feel jarring in a twinkling season of holiday music. But I think Christians should let this season remain strange and unsettling; let’s keep it odd and disruptive enough to inspire hope.

In a world of violence – whether overseas in distant deserts or European cities or in our own backyard – the strangeness of Advent can remind us about the vital and disruptive character of hope itself. “Business as usual” simply will not do in a society marked by gross income inequality, violence against women, and so many unexamined social policies rooted in white supremacy.

That’s why I need Advent’s unsettling insistence on hope. Unsettling, because hope inspires us to live in anticipation of a new world, even when we can’t see how things could possibly change. Unsettling, because hope urges us to act on behalf of a new world that we can’t yet see (Romans 8:24-25). Unsettling, because hope might convince us to set aside old, familiar things, even the most comfortable things, to make room for the new thing that God is constantly bringing about (Isaiah 42:9 and 43:19).

To be sure, apocalyptic texts and traditions can sometimes fuel armed conflict as a strategy for social change, or portray the world neatly divided between the saved and the damned, or simply breed complacency and neglect over this world in favor of the next one yet to come. That’s why Advent 1 cannot stand alone. We need the rest of the liturgical year to guide our vision toward the presently unimaginable – a world of peace with justice where all can thrive and flourish.

But right now, we need this oddly unsettling season to, as theologian David Matzko McCarthy once noted, “disturb the world with God.”

Rev. Dr. Jay Emerson Johnson
Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture
Coordinator of the Certificate of Spirituality and Social Change (CSSC)
Director of the Master of Arts in Social Transformation (MAST)