if not now, not then!
(fr Cyprian, 1st Sunday of Advent)
Way ahead of the secular world, we are already celebrating the new year––not the calendar year but the liturgical year, the Church year. I always like to note that the church gives us a weird sense of time during Advent. We start out talking about the second coming and the end of time as we did the past few weeks. In some way we should hardly notice the shift from the last weeks of the church year to the first, especially in Year C, which we begin now. We hear the same gospel reading on the last day (Saturday) as we hear on the first day (Sunday): Luke 21! Then we hear about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry; and only then do we start preparing for the narrative of Jesus’ birth. It’s like we’re swimming upstream in time. Someone mentioned to me the other day a saying of the Tibetan master Milarepa: “All time is now.” That made me think of a famous old hippie book about meditation called “Be Here Now.” I am not sure about the quality of the contents of that book, but I love that title. Most of us are always mentally somewhere else. So perhaps our first call for this season is to really be here––now, to listen and celebrate the Word of God which comes to us here and now––and makes its demands on us, here and now.
I was visiting a friend of mine, who is a priest and wonderful Scripture scholar and teacher, and he was telling the story of browsing through the bookstore one day. And he came across the series of novels in the Left Behind series. At first he was disappointed to see them at all, because as a Catholic he didn’t really care for their theology, but on second glance he was consoled to see where they were placed in the bookstore. They weren’t in the religion section; they were in the fiction section As far as he was concerned, that’s where they belonged; books such as these ought not be considered prophecy. They are fiction, pure and simple. Why? Because of what Jesus himself said: But of that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
It is pretty clear that among other things, Jesus saw himself as what we call an “eschatological prophet,” a prophet of the end times. (Actually I was taught that a better understanding of that phrase “the end of time” is “the fullness of time,” the completion of time.) So the sections in the gospels that refer to the end times, as we heard today from the 21st chapter of Luke, seem to be based on authentic discourses of Jesus. This is always a slippery area when we talk about Jesus’ own knowledge of himself, but he himself admits that his human knowledge is limited––that these things have not been revealed even to him! He might have thought that his second coming would be soon. All the synoptic gospels report him saying, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’ Certainly many of his disciples and the first people to pass on the Christians message thought that way too, including St. Paul––scholars see an immense change in Paul’s thinking about the coming of the Lord in Paul’s writings from the letter to the Thessalonians, which was probably his first letter, to the letter to Timothy, which was probably his last.
First of all it’s important to remember that Jesus saw the reign of God coming imminently––with his own preaching of it. Origen’s famous word for this was autobasileia–the self as kingdom. Jesus embodied the reign of God all by himself, in his person! That means that wherever Jesus is present, the kingdom of God has come near! Remember his inaugural address in Luke’s Gospel? Jesus goes into the synagogue, opens the scroll and reads: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ The kingdom of God is at hand! And again in Luke 17, when Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, he answered: ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.
Over and over we see Jesus proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God not as something in the future, but as something here, “already in your midst,” as in the first chapter of Mark: ‘The time is fulfilled; repent, and believe in the good news, the kingdom of God has come near.’ And he sends the disciples to say the same thing: Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.
The point is this: focusing too much, as we usually do, on some new definitive break in history can be a real temptation to distraction. It also is much more a spirituality based on fear rather than on love. And the point is this––and this I have borrowed verbatim from that friend of mine the scripture scholar: “If not now––not then!” And I always add, If not here, not there! Jesus’ ministry was based on the reign of God that has come near, on our lips, in our hearts, fulfilled in our hearing and even more, fulfilled in our living it. And our lives ought to be based on that too. I can’t help but think yet again of that great line that the angels have for the apostles at the ascension: ‘Men of Galilee, why are you looking up in the sky? This Jesus who has been lifted up into heaven will return.’ Why are you standing there looking in the sky?
How many times a day to we pray, in the words that Jesus gave us, “thy kingdom come,” and then we immediately define what we mean by that by saying “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? Those two phrases are intimately connected: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth”––in me! The Kingdom of heaven, the reign of God is nothing other than the Holy Spirit reigning over our thoughts, words and actions, the inner energy of the Spirit of God governing our souls and our bodies, “on earth as it is in heaven.” In the words of Jean Yves le Loup, the Kingdom of God is “the reign of love, love that informs and directs our other faculties.” Then we are autobasileia; where we are the reign of God is at hand––reigning in me. If not now, not then. If not here, not there. The reign of God is among us whenever we do the will of God. The whole point is to be ready.
It may not seem strange, but this means more and more to me the older I get, especially on a day such as this as we celebrate and mourn the death of one of our brother monks: If not now, when? If not here, where?
So, as we begin this season, let’s shift the focus away from some kind of new definitive break in history and be here/now. Let’s shift from fear to love––especially the love of God that informs and directs our thoughts, words and actions. Let’s shift from then to now, and concentrate on understanding the second coming, the end of time, the fullness of time, as the kingdom of heaven, as the reign of God that is none other than the rule of the Holy Spirit over us, the reign of love––now. To be ready; if not now––not then. This may be the whole of the purpose of the monastic, the contemplative life. To echo the words of today’s gospel, here and now and in the days ahead, let’s beware that our hearts do not become drowsy, and not just from carousing and drunkenness, but even from the anxieties of daily life that can distract us from that day which will then catch us by surprise like a trap. And let’s be vigilant at all times and pray that we have the strength to escape the tribulations and to stand before Jesus––because if not now, not then; if not here, not there.
Now is the time to tell those whom you love that you love them.
This is the place to incarnate that love in service and generosity even, especially, for the poor and all those who are left out and your so-called enemies.
Now is the time to beat your swords into plowshares and your spears into pruning hooks.
This is the place to build a world of justice and peace even with our local enemies with our petty complaints against them.
Now is the time to care for your precious human body, to heal your memories, to purify your thoughts,
This is the place to build better healthier relationships.
Now is the time to discover the inner wellspring of healing and love, the love of God that is poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us.
This is the place to that can be the outpouring of that love.
 Mk 13:24
Mt 16:28, Mk 9:1, Lk 9:27
 Lk 17:20-21
 Lk 9:1-2
Being Still, Jean Yves le Loup, 47.