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“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
I am currently reading a fascinating book by the Institute of Noetic Sciences titled, Living Deeply: The Art & Science of Transformation in Everyday Life. The authors point out that transformative experiences in life involve both assimilation and accommodation:
Jean Piaget, the Swiss-born biologist and pioneering developmental psychologist, together with his colleagues, observed that when a child is presented with a new experience, that new experience is most often assimilated or incorporated into their current beliefs and attitudes (Inhelder and Piaget 1958). Or, if a child’s beliefs and attitudes cannot assimilate a new experience because it’s too challenging or different, their cognitive structures must alter to accommodate, or make room for, the new experience. For example, when children see a zebra for the first time, they often call it a horse. Having no concept for zebras, children assimilate the experience of the zebra into their current mental structures and decide that it’s just an unusual horse. Eventually, a child will learn that there exists an animal similar to a horse in shape but actually a different animal altogether called a zebra. This process is the child accommodating her worldview to include the possibility of zebras.
Thus, as we learn, we’re naturally forced to stretch and revise our world- views. This cognitive process may partially account for the profound shifts in consciousness that we’ve heard about over and over again in our research.
But what makes it more likely that we’ll accommodate rather than assimilate new information? Psychologists Dacher Keltner from the University of California at Berkeley and Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia study experiences of awe and wonder, an area previously ignored by scientists. These two pioneers propose that awe has two essential components: perceived vastness and a need for accommodation (2003). In other words, it maybe that some experiences are so vast, so profound, so far beyond what we’ve previously perceived, that they in effect demand that we transform our worldview in order to accommodate them. Rather than simply trying to assimilate these experiences into our constricted framework, we are forced to broaden that framework. (pg 68-69)
Coupled with that reading has been a reading of Richard Rohr who in an article, “We need transformation not false transcendence” writes:
I am convinced that without experiences of liminal space (that place where all
transformation happens), there is no truthful perspective on life. Without truthful
perspective, there is neither gratitude nor any abiding confidence. It is precisely this deep gratitude and unfounded confidence that I see most lacking in our people today, even the people of the church. It makes me wonder whether we are doing our job. We are not being initiated into the mysteries.
Victor Turner, in his classic study of initiation, The Ritual Process, says that some kind of “shared liminality” is necessary to create what he calls communitas, or what I would call church. Communitas in a spiritual sense does not come from manufactured celebrations or events. Havenʼt we all tried that? It is forgotten the next day or even the next hour. It depends on artificial stimulants of food, drink, music, shared common space and energy. It is really lovely and probably necessary, but it does not transform. It merely sustains, and it is often unfortunately diversionary from the deeper task. True communitas comes from having walked through liminality together — and coming out the other side – forever different. The baptismal drowning pool was supposed to have ritualized just such an experience. But something happened along the way. Baptism became a pretty blessing of children
At the risk of being unfair and even making some enemies, I am going to say that much of the church I have experienced in my 58 years of life and 31 years as a priest is much more “liminoid” than liminal. Liminoid experience substitutes group think, shared and engineered feelings, mass reassurance and group membership for any real or significant personal transformation. It works real well. It creates false transcendence in just enough dosage to inoculate people from Real Encounter. It takes away oneʼs sense of aloneness and oneʼs sense of anxiety — and for most people this feels like “God.” And, of course, God is so humble and well practiced that God will use all of these things to bring us to Beloved Union. As I keep saying, these things are not bad, just dangerous and highly productive of delusion. In the world of the Spirit, the real sins are usually quite subtle. The devil is used to dressing in clothes that draw no attention to himself or herself, and if the clothes do,
they usually impress us.
These two quotations I feel need to be heard before we embark on trying to understand the Gospel passage for this Sunday, the first in Advent. The reason I say this is because so much of our reading of the Gospel seeks to assimilate Jesus into what we have already decided to believe, and very very little of Jesus’ teaching has the power to confront us with vastness and force accommodation, and to use Rohr, most of our encounters with Jesus are liminoid and certainly not liminal. We do not expect Real Encounter.
As proof of this assimilating liminoid syndrome, I would suggest that when most Christians read this passage, their attention is grasped chiefly by the two people in the field and the two women grinding and will ponder the details of how and why one is taken and one is left in each case. This is not our fault. We have been so thoroughly brow beaten by abysmal apocalyptic doctrines of the rapture, and the genre of sensationalist fear based movies and novels it has spawned.
I don’t want to get into too big a rant about the dubious doctrine of the rapture that only surfaced in the nineteenth century (You can read the history of its Irvingite origins here) All I have noticed is that this obsession with end times has had the effect of putting the church to sleep rather than keeping us awake as Jesus intended.
The background to this passage in Matthew is Jesus warning his disciples of the destruction of the temple and all the atrocities that were going to follow. Having outlined these dark events in Matthew 24:1-35 Jesus then moves to challenge his disciples to be awake to the unpredictability of the parousia of Jesus, which could (and I think, should) be translated, “The being present of Christ” rather than “The (second) coming of Christ” This being present of Christ occurs three times in Matthew 24 in verses 27, 37, and 39.
The context for the Advent One gospel teaching is the flood, where Noah built an Ark despite the derision of his neighbours and so was prepared for the day when everyone and everything else was swept away in the deluge.
What the rapture theorists have failed to note is that the Greek suggests that the ones who remain; the one’s who are Aphietai (= let loose, left alone), are better off than those who are Paralambanetai (= taken along, swept along). Hadn’t Jesus, earlier in Matthew 24:10-13 said, “Then many will fall (be swept?) away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
It would seem that you don’t have to experience the horror of a Noah type deluge to be swept away. As I look around the world I see Methane gassed miners in New Zealand, crushed worshipers in Cambodia, shelled South Korean fishermen. There are whole economies in Greece and Ireland in danger of being swept away, and it looks like that tsunami might well beach in other Mediterranean economies soon.
Although the “being present of Christ” (parousia) is presented in metaphors of flood and thief, nevertheless it would seem that wakefulness is the key to seeing that presence of Jesus in the middle of the crisis.
In the insecurity of these deluge days, it is easy to be swept away by fear.
Despite what the Rapturists ,who are “only visiting this planet”, may preach, I am happy not to be swept away on a wave of Apocalyptic avoidance. No, I want to stay and stand, firm on the earth where the parousia presence of Jesus is experienced in the liminal transforming margins of our suffering world.
In the gathering gloom of this Advent night. I light a candle, sip some coffee, and wait to accommodate Christ’s transforming presence by ongoing change in my life and attitudes. We will stand here together as the communitas of the awake ones.