In Advent, we may read different texts from year to year, but our readings follow a traditional pattern from “the doom and gloom” of the first Sunday, to the focus on John the Baptist (reviewing his birth and ministry) over the following two, and concluding with Mary’s Sunday. The apocalyptic tone of today’s readings is, in fact, being carried from the end-of-year readings, in which it develops even before the start of Advent proper. Advent I serves as a sort of “reverse Ascension”, when we bring Jesus back to earth “in a cloud, with power and great glory” (the same way he had left us at the end of the last Easter cycle), and hint at his mysterious “second coming” at the end of all time.
Jesus’ own teachings were very much focused on End Times. He was a prophet/rabbi of the Jewish Apocalyptic (i.e., “unveiling”) movement that reached its heights in the 1st century. Its proponents were a pessimistic bunch, who held a highly dualistic view of the world, understanding it to be in the clutches of evil, which one could either be collaborating with or opposing. They hoped that they were in the latter camp as those who obeyed the Law and received the divine secrets revealed to them (e.g., as in the writings contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls). Part of this revelation was the notion that very shortly, possibly within their lifetimes, divine intervention would free the world from the grip of the powers and principalities. So their hope did not rest in the present world becoming better, but in its imminent replacement. In the new Kingdom, there would be no suffering of the righteous; only the reversal of fortunes, God’s vindication through the ruler and judge he will send (but not necessarily the same as the royal Messiah), and the resurrection of the dead, so that not nobody gets away with having committed evil.
This judge and ruler who was supposed to usher in this new Kingdom was sometimes called the Son of Man. In its grammatically definite form, we read this phrase in the words of Jesus (e.g., today’s gospel), the letter to the Hebrews, and intertestamental writings (cf the “Judge of the Earth” in 1 Enoch). The expression is also present in its indefinite form (“a son of man or Adam”, "like a man") over 100 times in the OT, as a form of address or point of contrast. For example, Dan 7 recounts a mysterious vision, in which 4 beasts emerge from the sea and destroy kingdoms. Then, “one like a Son of Man” arrives from heaven and is given all authority and power forever. The scholars understand the human to refer to Israel herself, and the animals -- to the pagan nations who threatened her, expressing the hope that God would favour and give Israel dominion over all (like people had over nature in Genesis). By the time this vision gets incorporated by the NT writers into Rev 1:13, “a” Son of Man (basically, any human) had morphed into “the” specific angelic being sent from heaven. Granted, this being was never understood to be the God Almighty, only an additional one like him; just as the kings of Israel, Moses, angels, the progeny of angels and people, and even attributes of God such Wisdom have all been referred to being like God, or sons of God, but existing apart from YHWH (Judaism hasn’t always been as uniformly monotheistic as we think!).
Now, Jesus had definitely taught that this Son of Man was soon to come from heaven to earth, and likely truly used this expression as an important symbol of the new era. It is not clear, however, whether Jesus believed himself to be that Son of Man, or maybe later Christian storytellers believed that he believed it and put the word on his lips. Last week, we reflected on the passages in which Jesus did not deny the charge of being the King of the Jews (i.e., at his trial), reflecting his conviction that when the Son of Man arrived, he would be installed as this king. We even read the gospel of John, and Jesus’ words to Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world.” Of course, the king who might rule the Kingdom might not necessarily be the same person as the Son of Man who establishes it in the first place; but, the disciples’ belief developed after Jesus’ death and then handed down to us, is that Jesus was that Son of Man, the divine ruler of all creation, during their lives and at the end of all time.
But what is all of this to us, in Advent 2021? Well, we may be tempted to observe in our world “the signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations,” and become pessimistic. Jesus’ words, “people will faint from fear and foreboding” are currently attested to by the skyrocketing case loads of most psychotherapists. And, notably, our pessimism is different from that of the Jewish believers, who also thought this world was not getting better, but they didn’t care because they had their eyes fixed firmly on the world to come. We, on the other hand, are very much attached to this world, and we want it better now -- specifically, for us. Jesus’ predictions about the arrival of the new world aren’t happening at their face value, which causes us to be “weighed down with the worries of this life”. And, we dull our fear and anxiety by “dissipation and drunkenness,” both literally, especially over the holiday season, and figuratively. We squander the gifts given to us for the building of God’s Kingdom, and inebriate ourselves on the false trends and ideologies; we are preoccupied with the wrong kinds of “signs”, and dull the sense of God’s presence (for if we don’t, we might just feel compelled to act on it!).
This reminds me of the famous surrealist painting by Magritte, “the Son of Man”, which to me summarizes these temptations (hence the apple): hide our true self, turn our back to the clouds on which Jesus arrives (keeping the left hand towards it, just in case!), and don the suit of materialistic concerns, as we conform to and become wrapped up in them. Why did the communist agnostic artist give this title to his self-portrait? The revolutionary teachings of Jesus re. the reversal of fortunes in the coming kingdom might have struck a chord. But more broadly, Jesus -- “the” Son of Man, who will one day set the world fully right -- is also “a” son of any man, born in and working through each person’s own mundane, largely anonymous existence, despite our attempts to hide him. So let us not be stuck with the wrong kind of pessimism, and instead focus our efforts on alleviating each other’s suffering; moment by moment, making the world just a little bit more right, until Jesus completes the job -- with God’s help.