The Harbinger of Heaven and Hell

Advent is a strange season. On the one hand we prepare for the coming of a baby, innocent and vulnerable. On the other hand, evidenced by the Advent readings, we prepare for an unknown date when the God-Man ends the world in spectacular fashion. For some, this end will be ugly. For others, those who have prepared themselves and are at peace (2 Pt 3: 8-14) will rest in the Lord’s embrace. Innocent, adorable babies and eternal peace are wonderful things to think about and celebrate. To be sure, these are the climax to the Advent season. But there is a very long and very wide hike to this climax, one that is blatantly uncomfortable and messy. We are warned this week to prepare ourselves for the day of God, as it says in 2 Peter, because when God comes again the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire.  In a nutshell, things are going to get very dark, and we need to be the light of God that punches through the black.

The anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor is today, and it strikes me that the morning of December 7, 1941 must have felt very much like the day of God. Eyewitness accounts certainly paint the picture of a slice of Hell: fire, smoke, the sounds of wrenching metal and screaming voices, the sights and smells of death. For the vast majority of those living in Pearl Harbor this attack came suddenly, like a thief. Their world burned that morning, and for the survivors the world still burns 73 years later.

The world often burns, in ways both large and small. Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and the devastation in the Middle East are all monumental hells. Human trafficking, abortion, poverty, and drug dependence leave an immeasurable swath of destruction. Bad marriages and bad jobs burn. Illness burns. Rejection burns. These are the contexts of our story, the story that is supposed to end so happily. Strange, isn’t it?

It shouldn’t be. The prophetic books of the Old Testament are set during the times when Hebrews were slaves, broken and burning in their own private hell. Mary, heavily pregnant, traveled many miles on a donkey only to have the ignominious honor of giving birth in an out dwelling to a child that would be hunted, vilified, and crucified. Mark’s Gospel occurs at the same time that the Hebrews witness the destruction of the Temple, and with it the heart of their faith. All of these stories are dark in context, but center on a message of light and hope. In a sense it is the encouragement to look through the gaping maw of Hell and see Heaven.

This is what we do with tragedies like Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor is remembered as much for the heroic acts of the servicemen and women during those few burning hours as the enormous loss of life.  We don’t wallow in the destruction. We mourn, as we should, but we don’t mourn in vain. That is the gist of our strange Advent season. We are preparing for a birth that has already happened and an end that is yet to come, but we are called to prepare by looking at our own lives and choosing to either peer into Hell or look through it to Heaven.

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