Nov 28, 2012

We survived Doom Sunday


It seems that the last Sunday in the church year is known as “Doom Sunday” in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sweden and Bangsar Lutheran Church of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. That certainly sounds more dramatic than “Sunday of the Fulfillment”, although they mean much the same thing.

“Doom” means “judgment” (as in a sentence handed down by a judge) or “destiny.” Churches that use “Sunday of the Fulfillment” in reference to the last Sunday of the church year use “fulfillment” in the sense of “bringing things to a close” or “bringing things to completion.” Roman Catholic, Anglican and some Lutheran churches refer to this day as “Christ the King Sunday.” I prefer “Christ the King” (Cristo Rey in Spanish) because it is a phrase that it is a little easier for many people here to understand.

All express the same idea as this line from the Nicene Creed: “And He shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.” As a matter of fact, all the appointed Scripture readings in the historic lectionary for the last three Sundays in the church year deal with “the end times.”

IMG_1147.CR2Our liturgical calendar for the first half of the year recapitulates the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, as well as the founding of His church on earth. The remainder of the liturgical calendar focuses on the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in gathering people into the community of faith, using the church as His instrument. These themes, and the associated passages from the Bible, are organized in a logical progression that fits the annual cycle of days and weeks.

However, the objective of this calendar is not simply to recall past events, but to anticipate what will happen at some point in the future: the Second Coming of Christ in glory. The exact day or hour of this event has not been revealed to anyone (Mark 13:32),  “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 4:8-9)

The unspecified span of time between Christ's ascension into heaven and His return in glory is God's grace period, in which those who hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ may repent of their sins and be justified by faith. The faithful who already have passed from this world are already with Christ, but we who still live on earth cannot and should not try to communicate with them (Deuteronomy 18:10-12). But on the great and glorious day of Christ's return in visible form, the believers living on earth at that time will join those who have been raised bodily from the dead and all will be together with Him forever (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

This hope is woven throughout the fabric of the liturgical calendar, even from it beginning. The church year begins four Sundays before December 25 with the season of Advent, ostensibly a time pf preparation for celebrating the birth of Christ. Yet the lessons of Advent foreshadow two other events:
  1. Holy Week, because Christ was born into this world for the express purpose of suffering and dying on the cross. That is why in many churches, the liturgical color for Advent is purple, the same as Lent (Christ was wrapped in a purple robe and crowned with thorns before being sent to the Cross).
  2. The Second Coming. The Latin word adventus is a translation of the Greek word, parousia, which means “an important arrival.” Parousia is used 24 times in the New Testament, of which 16 refer explicitly to the Second Coming. So an alternative liturgical color for Advent is “Sarum blue”, a dark shade of blue originally used in the Sarum and Mozarabic rites, pre-Tridentine versions of the Latin Mass celebrated respectively in England and Spain. This shade of blue is supposed to represent the color of the early-morning sky, just before the first rays of dawn, thus symbolizing the hope of the resurrection and the Second Coming.
We have no command from the Lord that we must follow the liturgical calendar in its entirety, or even one particular form of it. Yet as Christians we are commanded to gather regularly to hear the Word of God and to receive the Lord's body and blood, in order “to proclaim the Lord's death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). We are to mark the days until He comes, and to be always ready either for the hour of our own physical death or the day the world ends. Either way we have the assurance of eternal life. But the danger is that we may be distracted by the cares and pleasures of the world, losing track of the time until it is too late.

This is the point of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in our Gospel reading for last Sunday (Matthew 25:1-13). Their assigned task was simple enough; to carry lamps in an evening wedding procession, according to the custom of that time and place. Yet those who fell asleep were not ready when the Bridegroom appeared and lost the chance to enter into the wedding feast. The liturgical calendar is like a fine timepiece, designed for this purpose: To help us order our days in anticipation of the Lord's return.

This does not mean selling all we have and abandoning our work and relationships to go sit on a mountaintop. That would be trying to second-guess God's design, which is what our Lord warns us that false prophets will do.  "Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it.  For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.  See, I have told you beforehand.  So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.   For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. " (Matthew 24:23-27)

Rather we should lve the lives that God has given us, in sobriety and moderation, secure in the promise of eternal life. "For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,  Who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.  Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. " (1 Thessalonians 5:9-11)
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