Already, Not Yet: The Eschatological Tension of Now
Already, Not Yet! This is a phrase often associated with the eschatological tension that is made front and center of the liturgical season of Advent that gets underway today. If “Jesus” is the “Reason for the Season” of Christmas, as the popular expression goes (though, in truth, God’s love for creation is really the “reason for the reason,” that is the reason for the Incarnation), then “Now!” is the “Reason for the Season” of Advent.
As we kick off another liturgical year, entering into the Gospel narratives of Luke in the months to come and prepare for the opening of the Jubilee Year of Mercy in about a week, it is worthwhile to step back and remind ourselves why it is that we celebrate Advent, what it is all about, and what it actually means for us (i.e., “so what?”). Our readings this Sunday provide us with excellent insight into the answer to these questions.
Our First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah (33:14-16) brings us back to the early centuries of the People of Israel. According to the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the “Old Testament”), God makes four covenants, each with: (1) Noah, (2) Abraham, (3) Moses, and (4) David. The last of these is what is of interest to Jeremiah and to us here.
The promise God makes is that there will be a restoration of the unified Kingdom of Israel, which has at this time been split into two separate domains (not to mention the various capturing and recapturing of these from foreign nations). The covenant is that God will send someone from the Davidic line to restore the nation and community into one. While this is, on the one hand, about the historical reality of a divided nation, it is also, on the other hand, a prophecy that Christians believe exceeds the particular historical confines of the Davidic kingship.
God will in fact send an anointed one, a messiah from the Davidic line, who happens to be the Eternal Word made Flesh — God in God’s very self! The unity that is brought about is a cosmic unity, not simply uniting historically separated kingdoms, but the whole universe and all people.
Jeremiah is not really aware of this in his time, but nevertheless expresses in his prophetic proclamation a sense of this eschatological tension between the “already” and “not yet.” The response is to address the question “What do we do now?” and his answer is twofold: to remember the covenant, the past, in which God made this promise and to hope in the future for its fulfillment. Meanwhile, we are to live out this memory and hope in terms of working for justice in our societies.
The Second Reading (1 Thess 3:12–4:2) likewise is concerned about the “already, not yet” theme of this season. Here the Thessalonians are deeply troubled about the length of time that it appears to be taking Jesus to return. They were expecting an immanent Second Coming, and what they got instead was a lot of anxiety about what would happen to those who might die before Jesus shows back up.
Paul addresses this head on in the spirit of Jeremiah, reassuring the Thessalonians by recalling the teaching and actions of Christ, placing their hopes in the future of God’s promise, and focusing on the present, the now. This last point is the bulk of today’s reading, an admonition to this early Christian community to not get all worked up about God not operating according to their schedules, but instead focus on how one is to live in the “now.” Paul explains:
May the Lord make you increase and abound in love
for one another and for all,
just as we have for you,
so as to strengthen your hearts,
to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father…
brothers and sisters,
we earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that,
as you received from us
how you should conduct yourselves to please God
and as you are conducting yourselves
you do so even more.
For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.
The season of actively waiting, of living into the “already, not yet” of our present reality is a season where we should work to increase or love for one another and live in such a way as to reflect the Gospel that has been handed down to us.
Finally, in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 21:25-28, 34-36) we have within Jesus’s extended foretelling of his death a promise of Christ’s return and a presentation of what that might look like. Despite the apocalyptic imagery that so often leads to fear and trepidation in the minds of most movie-goers, Jesus’s message here is really not about fear at all. Instead there is a clear instruction given about how to live in light of the “already, not yet” of God’s eternal plan.
Jesus describes the end times (eschaton) with vivid imagery, but then offers a twofold admonition to his followers. He says that in the now we are to live in such a way as to avoid (a) drowsiness, drunkenness, a sense of “taking life for granted,” as well as (b) the unnecessary anxieties of daily life. With regard to the former, we can easily slip into complacency and forget about the Gospel call to live in the moment, to consider the example given to us in Christ. With regard to the latter, we can get so distracted by our own agendas, interests, and concerns that we also forget to live the Gospel. Both of these should be avoided.
The season of Advent is a season of the now, it is a season that calls us to snap out of our quotidian malaise and our anxieties and fears in order to start living what we’ve been called to in baptism: Gospel life.