The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
One of Advent's themes is the coming of the baby Jesus at Christmas, but also Jesus' coming again. For many, this topic of the end times can bring anxiety, especially as we recognize that each and every one of us will face our own individual end time.
In my sermon last Sunday on Matthew 24:36-44, I suggested two ways to address this anxiety of "being prepared" for the coming again of Jesus during Advent. Those two ways forward were about embracing mystery, and getting busy loving others. You can watch that sermon here if you missed it. I'd also like to suggest two other ways beyond the existential anxiety.
Embrace truly good news
One of the lines in the gospel reading says, "At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. Therefore, stay alert!" A couple of people asked me this week, "Is this about the rapture? Is this about being 'left behind'?" In short, no. The doctrine of the rapture is actually not a part of mainstream Christian theology, whether catholic (Roman, Orthodox, Anglican) or mainline protestant (Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.). It's an almost exclusively American, fundamentalist teaching that's not very old (only 150 years or so). It's also based on only a couple of rather vague pieces of scripture. In fact, this reading requires us to lay the idea of the rapture, and the idea of being "left behind," on top of it for that interpretation to work. The analogy Jesus makes with Noah and the flood right before those verses would mean the ones "taken" or "swept away" would be the ones judged as in the flood. The ones "left behind" in the flood are the ones who are saved! Mostly, this is about the suddenness with which the end can come--for any of us! Whether we're at work or at home.
The rapture has been the source of a lot of religious anxiety for a lot of people. If it's something that swims around in your consciousness, know that you can let it sink to the bottom. Remember: after Jesus' resurrection the tomb was empty. Nothing and no one gets left behind.
A good resource on this topic, though slightly dated, is The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation by Barbara R. Rossing. Another, slightly newer resource, is Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. Take the time to do a little reading and learning about the hopefulness of the biblical message around eschatology (aka, the study of the end times). Dump the bad theology and embrace the truly good news of the biblical message.
In the short Prayer Book liturgy called "Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child," the rubrics say, "The Minister of the Congregation is directed to instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposition of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses" (p. 445).
When Mtr. Liz and I prepare parents for the baptism of their infants, this is always a part of our teaching. I usually tell the story of myself as a younger man awkwardly having this conversation with Catt. When it was over, and we'd made our will, prepared our advance medical directives, talked about our burial arrangements, I felt huge relief. I think most of the fear around death revolves around being unprepared. Doing the practical work of preparation can go a long way towards assuaging anxiety.
Get busy loving.
Embrace truly good news.
There's nothing wrong with feeling some anxiety around death and the end. Our funeral liturgy teaches us, however, that when things come tumbling down, when we die, when the world ends, "life is changed, not ended." We remain always and forever in the hands of loving, merciful, forgiving God, who loves the whole world. Even you and me. Keep the faith, St. Paul's.