“Apocalyptic,” Ernst Käsemann famously wrote, “was the mother of all Christian theology.” What Käsemann calls “apocalyptic” is a vision of life that thinks of God and the work of God as profoundly disconnected from ordinary human affairs, especially ordinary timekeeping. Ancient Hellenistic paganism imagined time the same way we technology-obsessed, post-Christian, technocratic citizens of modern nation states have been trained to. In fact it seems almost beyond doubt to us, as it was to first century pagans, that what is most real is the hard present and its foundational past—off of which our present.What this present and its conjoined past will have accomplished is what we think of as the future; but, we also believe, this future is not real, not until it shakes off its “futurity” and becomes the present.
An apocalyptic vision, however, reverses all of that. It knows in its bones that it is the future that is most real. “What is” and “what was” are dependent on “what is to come.” Indeed, the future is so heavy and so vital that it is not an object to be reached by our good works, but an event that is coming, that is on its way, from which even now we draw our momentary life and hope, the way the lungs draw breath from good air.
Paul’s vision in Philippians is apocalyptic. There is apocalyptic time all over the first chapter of this book. Paul’s memories here are not nostalgic, but already embraced and fed by the God whose Reign even now is breaking into our world. The grace (charis) of that future is alive in Paul as joy (chara), a joy that—dependent as it is on what is to come—does not grow old. Nor is this future situated ahead on some temporal route, one we progress toward by passing through markers that measure our progress. It is a living future that even now opens us beyond temporary optimism or despair.
Perhaps the greatest temptation of Christmas is to yield to pagan and, now, to late modern conceptions of time. We are tempted to think of Christmas Day in Bethlehem as a point on a calendar from which moments of time can be measured. Even the very old designation “A.D.,” Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord,” has fallen prey to this imagination. This is no less true of Advent. I think it is a serious mistake to begin a “Christian calendar” with “Advent.” The only advantage I can think of to celebrating Advent is that it removes some of the vainglory of Christmas. At least when in early December commercial loudspeakers shout “Merry Christmas!” somebody at a “Christian Calendar” attuned pulpit will shout back, “It’s not Christmas yet!” But in either case, there is no such thing as a cyclical liturgical year, certainly not one that begins with Advent. Nor is there a linear year that begins with “the first noel,” as if “A.D.” were in fact the year of anyone the gospel might recognize as “Lord.” The gospel attends to the complex crucifixion/resurrection of Jesus and the redemption of all (let’s call it) “space/time” in the coming Eschatos. The first day of the year—let us never forget!—is any day one prays, “maranatha!”