The Apocalypse Behind the Apocalypse

There’s been no shortage of reflection and conversation over the past year about what’s been revealed by our multiple societal crises. So many dynamics – economic, social, political, cultural, and indeed ecclesial – that lay under the surface suddenly came to the fore in jarring ways. It’s often been called an “apocalyptic” moment, that is, a moment that has “unveiled” or “exposed” or “revealed.” Rightly so.

In the weeks before and after Easter, it struck me that many of us were framing Jesus’ resurrection and its implications as a sort of “in spite of,” over and against all these apocalypses of the past 13 months. There is of course some truth to this; I remarked to some colleagues a couple weeks ago that a good Easter sermon title would be, “Despite all the #$@!$#@#%#@% , Jesus is risen” (no doubt riffing on a famous Stan Hauerwas phrase).

But I think we have to be careful here not to inadvertently profess that the resurrection is “an exception to the rule.” When we make it the exception, we risk rendering it something that is somehow not quite as true as something else; as if all the pain, suffering, sin, and injustice in the world is just how things are, and that resurrection is mostly just a powerful exception to that, a pushback, a rejection, an “in spite of.” This turns resurrection into a sort of intermittent divine intervention rather than the larger truth about God, the world, and all of us.

So what if we flipped it?  What if we said, “actually, all this awful stuff that leads to death is the exception to how things really are in God’s story of redemption.” In spite of Jesus’ resurrection, we’re still inhabiting a “not yet” world that longs for harmony and wholeness. All these recurrent, deeply troubling “apocalypses” demand our attention and engagement, and in that process are to be interpreted against the backdrop of the ultimate apocalyptic hope, the revealing that is Jesus’ resurrection, restoration, redemption, and reconciliation of the whole cosmos in Christ.

In a 1955 letter, Flannery O’Connor proposed a similar line of thought:

“… and there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive. Witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints. Right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul. …For my part I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and the physical really are, then I will know what God is. We know them as we see them, not as God sees them. For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. …The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature…”

Fine with me if you want to quibble with O’Connor’s theological reflection – you won’t be the first. But the basic point as I take it is that our hope is that Jesus’ life in its fullest sense is actually how things really are, the rule, not the exception. That we can look at the world around us, with all our tendencies toward judgmental-ism, selfishness, injustice, and hold on to the hope that behind all of it is life everlasting, is new creation, is wholeness, is the place where steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, where righteousness and peace will kiss (Ps 85). As Karl Barth put it: “the final word is never that of warning, of judgment, of punishment, of a barrier erected, of a grave opened. We cannot speak of it without mentioning all these things. … But the No is said for the sake of the Yes and not for its own sake. In substance, therefore, the first and last word is Yes and not No.” (CD II.2)

When we catch glimpses of God’s “Yes” of resurrection, we’re catching the great revealing of God’s new creation in Christ, the way things really are, the apocalypse behind the apocalypse. Without downplaying what lies before us and the attention it requires, this ultimate apocalypse of “Christ is Risen Indeed!” is one worth reminding each other of along the way.

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