The best thing about apocalyptic visions is that they’re just over the boundary-line of history. Whether in according-to-Collins apocalypses or simply in the oracles of the prophets, the Old Testament, setting the table for the New, presents promises of life without death, peace without strife, and in this week’s Old Testament text harvest without languishing. Certainly those faithful of the age before us were no fools: even without a Martin Heidegger to formulate being-in-the-face-of-death, they had the Psalmist reminding them that a man has threescore and ten years, fourscore if he have the strength, and the book of Ecclesiastes, with its hand always in the soil, reminds the wise and industrious that the fruits of wisdom and industry will outlast the body of the wise and industrious man. But there was always the sense, even in Ecclesiastes, that the true nature of existence, that wonderful bounty from which humankind has fallen, was just beyond a veil of shadow and sorrow. If life now is always in the face of death, then the larger being-towards-death is itself, in turn, always surrounded by a life-prior-to-death, whether the Bible calls it Eden or Paradise or the Kingdom of Heaven, that keeps death from its victory.
Such complexity, truthful to the end about death even as it confesses a life before and beyond and in defiant of death, allows the writers of the New Testament to articulate the wonderful confessions of Jesus as sophia theou (1 Corinthians 1:24) and soter (Luke 2:11) and, in this week’s reading, as logos, ordering word. The Greek tendency to make sophia something more ethereal and non-bodily than sophrosyne had to be a temptation, just as the urge to make Jesus a divine emperor-figure like the divine Caesars must have been strong. But the soaring hymn to the logos that was with God and that was God in John 1 always pulls towards earth with every leap to the heavens–yes, the logos who became flesh had a hand in creating all things, but that logos also had a people and stood rejected by those people. Yes, the logos makes known the very Father and Creator, but John must be in the story to make the logos known. To think about the divine, the opening hymn in John insists, is to think about YHWH, and to think about YHWH is to think about Israel, and to think about Israel is always to think about Israel in relationship with one man, born in Bethlehem, preaching around the Sea of Galilee, crucified in Jerusalem.
It’s easy for me, as a college teacher, to start thinking about myself as some sort of emissary from Homer and Plato and Dante, an alien beamed into the world of high school dances and paychecks and students who play with their phones too much in class. Times like Christmas, when I’m around the people with whom I grew up and with whom my wife grew up, remind me that whatever transcendence I reach for, whether that of the life of letters or, on a higher plane, that of a member of the Body of the King of Kingdoms, I always reach with an arm that once struck a bass drum for the Plainfield High School marching band, and when I attempt to persuade my own students to love Dante, I do so with the spoken dialect of a man not three generations removed from a coal mine.
When the divine comes from the rich and maddening mix of history and the historical always reaches forwards past the strong bonds of death and finitude, the reality that moves between the two, tense and beautiful and infinitely challenging, cannot but be a gift from God. May the lives of the faithful always be lives of gratitude for the gift of such an existence.