At some point, they stopped waiting… or at least stopped waiting so expectantly. For some, maybe the first or second generation of followers, they stopped after a few months. For others, it would be much longer. Others held true to the promise, to the hope. Jesus hadn’t come back. But he said he would. And they waited.
Around the year 50, Paul wrote to the church in Thessaloniki, urging, “Hey, I know you don’t need to be told all this. But just in case… keep watch. Keep waiting and take care of each other.” Paul tells them to live their lives, to keep going. But don’t just sit around waiting. And then he ends his letter with a laundry list of last minute things to keep them going. It’s been around twenty years by now. Think of waiting that long for something so important to be resolved – not reunited or reattached, but resolved. Think of a story and a promise you heard. Maybe you read a famous letter or two. Yet, there’s nothing official and nothing in stone. Paul writes to the Thessalonians during the reign of Claudius. The emperor is not a fan of new religions or telling people about new gods. You’re waiting for something, something to not just break, but break open.
In twenty years, the Temple at Jerusalem will be broken apart and knocked down and it will feel like the end of the world. And Mark, like a lion, will soon proclaim how Jesus said it would happen and how the end of the world would come. Matthew and Luke will spread the the tale. Jerusalem fell in the second year of the Emperor Vespasian and life went on in the Empire. Somewhere, along the line, people had to rethink this parousia, this Second Coming, this eschaton, this End. This waiting wasn’t working the way they expected. Who remembers?
Who remembers Y2K? Do you tell your kids about it? That was an apocalypse that never was. Can they understand September 11th? That was twenty years ago. Does it still pack a punch? Are we telling the story correctly? The way we want to? We keep thinking about it, remembering the time before and rethinking the time since. Twenty years.
Time is weird. Things get laid atop of other things. Time smears and crumbles. Time cakes and dries out, gumming up our joints and the gears of our memories. It mummifies. It decays.
It was two years ago yesterday, January 20, when the first case of COVID-19 is confirmed in the United States. A man returns to Snohomish County, Washington from visiting family in Wuhan, China and develops a fever and cough. He is hospitalized and survives. On Friday, March 13, I pick up our son from first grade for the last time before going full remote schooling. New York City, entering lockdown, soon grinds to a crawl. For the first time, I hear mourning doves outside my apartment window. Sirens take the place of the snuffle of highway traffic. A midnight helicopter hums in the dark. It hovers for what seems like an hour. Was it that long ago? I can still hear the whup of the rotors. They won’t go away.
Trump breezily assures the country that COVID will be gone by Easter. His base will be back in church before they know it, he promises. “It’ll just disappear,” says the man whose one doctrine is the power of positive thinking. We feel trapped in our apartment in a city of eight million people. People moving away. White refrigerator trucks humming alongside hospitals. Sirens and statistics. They grow. The story remains in the eternal present. It is vivid and now. It doesn’t disappear.
Our eight year old son says that he does not really remember the Before Times. He was six, then. How much of first grade life do any of us recall? He dutifully wears a mask as if it were something as ordinary as a pair of socks. Remote schooling was a disaster. He sees his best friend in a park and they run around for hours. Instinctively, they keep a safe distance between themselves. They are dragons and free from the world they fly around the open field. We go home again. It will be weeks before he sees her again. He is happy to be back in school. This week, the school sent home test kits. We were relieved to receive them. Elementary school is a time of memories made. He hates the masks, but he wears them. Every morning, he remembers to put it on as we go out the door.
Two years ago, we had no comprehension of what was in store for us. No vocabulary or grammar. No vaccines. No variants. We waited. We waited for information. We waited for it to pass. We waited for safety. We waited for something better. And over time, we have come to understand that this virus is here to stay. There is no “return to normal” and there is no “normalizing”. We have had a collective experience of the transformation of the world. There is the Before Times. And there is the time after. This is the Now. Now, we wait and live, but for what?
The first followers of Jesus expected his return “soon”. That was part of the Good News, it seemed. Something to overcome this infernal Empire. In wild and unearthly images, Paul and John of Patmos vividly describe what that “soon” would look like. When you have nothing to go on, the imagination can go wild. But then the Eschaton began to drift further and further away. And people “normalized” it in their own particular ways, however they needed it. But others needed the Eschaton ever closer, ever imminent.
The Millennium approached and people got excited until it passed and life went on in Europe through the Medieval Age, Reformation, and Renaissance, spreading out to colonize and conquer. On October 22, 1844, the Millerites experienced the Great Disappointment, the failure of Jesus to return. Darby, Ryrie, and Scofield created a dispensationalist Rapture, the keys and codes revealed in their Bible commentaries. Tim La Haye and Jerry Jenkins fictionalized it all for a new generation in Left Behind. Still today, amongst the American evangelicals, perhaps a faithful remnant can force the return of Jesus, a kind of christofascist accelerationism. And the rest of us mark time in Anno Domini, the Year of the Lord, the Common Era.
This is all very labyrinthine, I understand that. What to say about time, expectation, and salvation from the Ruin of the World? We expect something for us, our loved ones, for our society. We have seen and experienced the strains upon self, community, state, and beyond. Death and its threat dwells among us in new, intimate ways we’ve considered in only dystopian fiction and century-old history. Resistance comes from unexpected places, families and communities torn asunder over a mask and a shot. We are exhausted and fatigued. An eschaton of many kinds has appeal, something to end and something to begin. But who we were, what we had, and how we lived before are no longer existent. Over 800,000 lives and counting in the United States alone are non-existent.
We pray and lament and seek meaning and understanding and peace. And we do all this in expectation, in expectation of resolution and relief. Something must give. It must, must it? That’s what we’re hoping for. How shall we understand God to act? How shall we understand ourselves to act in faith, hope, and love toward others? We act in time, because we are creatures of and in time. We must act in time, hoping to contain it as best we can.
Time often appears in boxes. A statue’s time capsule. A box of first-marriage mementos. A loved one’s coffin. The back of a closet. We put it there. We find it there. We know it’s there. We leave it there. We move on with our lives… or we try to or we wish to remain there at the side of this box, waiting for something more. Waiting for relief and comfort. Keep waiting and take care of each other.
For something, for someone to return, we are waiting. I’m so tired.