There was something radically democratic in the idea of Advent, the thought that the working man who had been killed through a conspiracy of religious and political leaders would come back with overwhelming power and establish a new order was a revolutionary thought. The Revelation to Saint John the Divine, the Apocalypse, the last book in the Bible, became a rich source of inspiration for Christian groups who hoped for a new Jerusalem. The words of Jesus in the Gospels promising his followers that he would return to establish a kingdom of justice and righteousness were a source of hope for people who felt oppressed by harsh regimes.
The Church season of Advent began today, though there seemed little call by church leaders for the revolutionary changes envisaged in the Bible, little attempt to fulfil the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary to put down the mighty from their seats and to exalt the humble and meek. There seemed a plentiful supply of Christmas carols and Christingles and other pre-Christmas observances, but not much by way of righteous judgment and deep wailing.
Perhaps the shift in emphasis owes much to the fact that the imminence of the Last Day is not widely believed, the sandwich board man announcing that the end of the world is nigh has become a rarity. Perhaps, though, the decline in Advent thought owes much to its subversive nature.
The message that a poor man who was killed by the rich and the powerful would return in power and establish a reign of justice and peace is discomfiting to those whose interests lie in the perpetuation of the existing order. Radical democracy and social justice are not at the forefront of the thinking of those wedded to hierarchy and power relationships that rest on financial and social influence.
The book of Revelation is a troubling book, its veiled references to Nero and to the the imperial powers of the time speak of a writer who believes that a new Jerusalem will be established where the existing powers will forever be overthrown. The Church used the text of Revelation in medieval times to conjure visions of the terrible doom that awaited those who did not conform to church teaching. Revelation itself talks of the record being opened and people being judged according to their lives, which in medieval times would have spelt the condemnation of many of the church’s most powerful figures. Saint John the Divine would have recoiled at the thought of what the church had become.
Perhaps the Advent hope is missing because churches have never recovered from the centuries of compromise. Speaking of Advent in its fullness would be too stern a test.