The First Sunday of Advent was yesterday, a Christian feast that never passes without my attention. It was the feast of title of my childhood church, celebrated with as much pomp and festivity as our little parish could muster. It was also usually the season of the bishop’s visitation; I was confirmed during Advent at the tender age of nine.
I don’t think mainstream Christians are saying much lately about the Second Coming, maybe because it’s all the Evangelicals can talk about. Strangely enough, while the Gospels depict Jesus talking about the kingdom or reign of God, they don’t record his primary message as, “I’m going away, but I’ll be back and then you’ll be sorry.” I should no longer be surprised that a lot of Christian teaching, especially though not exclusively of the Evangelical variety, has nothing whatsoever to do with the plain sense of the Gospels, and yet I am.
In any case, in Advent the Church traditionally looks back to the birth of Jesus as the coming of the long-expected Messiah, looks forward to his return as the King of Glory, and looks inward to preparing for and welcoming his presence in the heart. Jesus will return as King to fix things that are broken, to put things to rights, to make sure that the world works the way God intended it to, that is, on principles of peace, justice, fairness, sharing, compassion, forgiveness. And then we shall all live happily ever after–except for those who don’t want to play fair and share their toys.
The myth of the Return of the King is deeply embedded in Western consciousness, whether as a Christian trope or not. When Tolkien’s publisher split The Lord of the Rings into three volumes, he titled the third one in a way that gave away the plot (Tolkien complained) but tapped into the archetype. It is vitally important that the rightful King be restored to the throne, so that the Free Peoples of Middle Earth can take their places around him, just as the lesser kings of Ireland took their places around the High King in the mead-hall of Tara. It is against the backdrop of that enthronement that Frodo suffers his slow decline and Sam his gradual flourishing; because King Elessar is on the throne, Sam can draw his family close and say, “I’m home”.
The Return of the King is what we are hoping for every time somebody publishes a new novel about King Arthur. There is no end of Arthurian literature, some of it focused on the history, some on the romance, some on the magic and mysticism. The BBC is currently airing its fourth series of the show Merlin, which pairs a youthful Merlin of peasant birth with a youthful Arthur who has been raised as a prince in a Camelot where magic is forbidden; he gets hid on the head a lot so that he won’t notice Merlin has just saved his life by magic, again. I am inordinately fond of this show and its extremely handsome young actors, Colin Morgan and Bradley James. There are moments when, despite being a prat much of the time, young Arthur Pendragon as played by Bradley James really does manifest the archetype of the True King, the one whose place at the center of things ensures peace, justice, and prosperity for all. The show is already hinting that the strength of Arthur’s kingship won’t be in winning battles, but in listening to people regardless of their station and bringing them together.
I love the archetype, but I don’t live in a monarchy and I don’t wish to. (Even if a monarchy looks better, some days, than the plutocratic oligarchy we actually seem to be living under in the U.S.) Nor do I think that Jesus will come back and reward a few right-thinking people and condemn everyone else to eternal punishment for short-term mistakes. In his recent book Apocalypse Not, John Michael Greer traces the myth of apocalypse back to the ancient cycle of the precession of the equinoxes, which was first observed very early in human history, and to the first man who interpreted a recurring cosmic cycle as a one-time historical even: Zoroaster, or Zarathustra. Zarathustra, a priest of the Iranian fire-religion that was very similar to the religion of the Vedas, successfully reformed that religion into a linear monotheism that looked forward to an end time, a shift in the cosmic principles that would be permanent and unceasing. Then his people, the Persians, handed on those concepts to the Jews who lived in diaspora in the Persian Empire… and the book of Daniel emerged, and the apocalypse meme propagated in Western civilization.
What’s the antidote to the apocalypse meme? How do we know that the world will *not* end at the Winter Solstice 2012, just as it did not end in May or October 2011 as predicted by Harold Camping? (Read Greer’s book: He explains why we think it might, and why it won’t.) The antidote to the apocalypse meme, I guess, is to look at cycles rather than lines. Night is always followed by day, winter by spring, sleep by waking. On this basis we speculate that as birth is followed eventually by death, death is followed somehow by rebirth. The point of sunrise slips backward against the constellations; at present it’s still creeping through the sign of Pisces, and won’t cross into Aquarius until around 2600 C.E. After Aquarius comes Capricorn, then Sagittarius, and so on, and when we work our way back to Aries, we’ll just start all over with Pisces, if any people are still here on earth to look at the sky and take notice.
In my own life I’ve started to think of spirals. IF there’s any progress in life, it’s in spirals, in circles that are not closed but a little bit open, in coming back to the same places with new experiences. I come up against the same issues over and over, until I want to beat my head against the nearest wall, but I’m beginning to remember that neither I, nor the issues, are exactly the same each time; going around the cycle has changed me and the issues and in that knowledge there’s a chance to change further, consciously.
And now I shall leave you with this video from Penelopepiscopal of my favorite Advent hymn: