Disappointment and consolation


Scripture: Mark 13: 24-27; 32-37  Reign of Christ Nigel Bunce

Today’s homily addresses the question of disappointment and consolation in the context of the Reign  of Christ.  Early Christians looked for Christ’s return to complete the work of bringing in God’s Kingdom on earth.  Disappointment led to translation of the Kingdom to heaven, and Jesus became an increasingly spiritual Messiah.

What would the Reign of Christ look like?

Every year, I wonder about this question.  In particular, should we look for it on earth or in heaven?

This year, we have been reading from Mark’s Gospel. To me, Mark clearly imagined that the Reign of Christ would come ion earth. Jesus’ first words [1:15] in Mark’s Gospel. “The time has come; the kingdom of God has come near.”

Mark retained the Jewish conception of the Messiah. A human agent that God appointed. His task: to usher in God’s righteous rule on earth. Just as the prophets foretold. No more conflict [Isaiah 2: swords to ploughshares]. No more suffering and untimely death [Isaiah 65, the glorious new creation].

A change of emphasis

Gradually, the emerging Christian movement placed the Kingdom ever more heavenwards. At the same time, Jesus became ever more the Christ figure who was the Son of God , rather than a son of God. But, why did that happen?

From the start, Christians believed that Jesus would return from the Father. To complete the work of bringing the Kingdom into being. The emphasis of the final part of today’s Gospel reading is that you don’t know when Jesus will return. But it will, one day.

And you hope to be there when it happens. Imagine someone who was a young adult, 20 years old, when Jesus died. By the time that Mark wrote his Gospel they’d be in their 50’s. It still made sense to keep awake. To be ready. Because it will happen. You just didn’t know when.

But forty years later, when John’s Gospel appeared, no-one who actually witnessed those early days was still alive. Their generation had already missed the show. John presumably realized that banging the drum of “Keep awake, be ready” was getting harder to sustain.

Even though, 2000 years later, it’s still standard Christian doctrine. Though, I wonder, how many of St. George’s parishioners go to bed each night wondering whether it will be tomorrow? So John’s Gospel changed the emphasis from “Keep awake, be ready” for Jesus. To an eternal Christ-figure and a heavenly kingdom.

Disappointment and consolation

I want to propose that these shifts in emphasis came about because of disappointment. Christians grieved the fact that they had not seen the parousia, the Second Coming. Indeed, St. Paul had to reassure his church in Thessalonika not to worry that some believers had already died before Christ returned. No, they hadn’t “missed the show”.

The sense of disappointment came to me from an essay in the Globe & Mail two weeks ago. An extract from Michael Ignatieff’s new book. On Consolation: Finding solace in dark times. Consolation has these meanings: comfort, solace, relief, succor, help, support, cheer.

Ignatieff’s essay began with the idea that everyone has disappointments in life. Consolation is the struggle to give meaning to these disappointments. Successful consolation allows us to regain confidence in ourselves – to believe in ourselves again.

A sports analogy and COP26

When you or your team lost, did you really do your best? Wasn’t there one more ounce of effort that you could have made? And, likewise with that broken relationship? Or, that failure at work? Did you really put absolutely everything into it?  Consolation means that you get to live with the failure. 

As I began preparing this homily, last Monday, there was much hand-wringing about whether the delegates could have done more to make COP26 a greater success. Or, less of a failure, depending on whether the writer was an optimist or a pessimist. In time, consolation will allow the grieving delegates to pick themselves up and go to Cairo next year to try again.

St. Paul’s disappointment

On the question, when would Christ return? Or even, would he return at all? Ignatieff addressed this Christian disappointment in the context of St. Paul.

Quote: “Paul came to understand that the Messiah was not returning any time soon. The consolation that he could count on was not just the hope of heavenly salvation, but the love of human beings here on Earth. The love he immortalized in the epistle to the Corinthians.” End quote. 

Keep awake! or, Wake up!

As I think about Mark’s Gospel from today’s perspective: Keeping awake for the Son of Man to arrive on clouds with power and glory seems misguided. Mark had told us clearly that God’s Kingdom had come near with Jesus. Our task is to bring it closer, to reality.

God has left the Creation in our often fumbling hands. The right imperative isn’t “Keep awake”, or “Be ready”. It’s “Wake up!” Or, “Get going.” God isn’t magically going to ‘turn our swords into ploughshares.’ Even the prophets didn’t think so. It was a task for “the nations.”

The same with climate change. As we sang last week, “the task is ours to do, O open up our hearts to carry out your will.” So COP27, 28, 29, and so on will have to reconvene till there’s agreement on how to proceed with climate change.

Scripture tells us what we have to do

The Ten Commandments tell us to act honourably towards each other. The Golden Rule tells us to treat other people the way we hope they will treat us. Jesus gives us a New Commandment to love one another. Add to this, the idea of consolation.

We don’t only console ourselves after failures. Other people help to offer solace in our griefs. All these ideas are true in the private, personal sphere. But also in the wider political arena. Even parliaments and United Nations conferences.

Let me end with the closing words of Michael Ignatieff’s essay. “It is when we have felt something of our own vulnerability that we can begin to offer others the gift of hope and consolation.” Amen.