IN 1831 A BAPTIST PREACHER in upstate New York began to announce that the Second Coming of Christ was to take place in 1844. By that year over 100,000 people were anticipating that what William Miller had identified as the “Blessed Hope” of Titus 2:13 would take place on October 22. When Christ did not return on that date the “Blessed Hope” became known as the “Great Disappointment.” Remnants of this group, the first Seventh Day Adventists, then said that the Last Judgment had begun in heaven on that day.
The date of choice for early Jehovah’s Witnesses was 1914. When Christ didn’t visibly return, they said that He came invisibly in the spirit. Members were told that the world would end in 1920, 1925, 1957, 1975 and 1984. In 1995 the Witnesses announced that the end of the world had been postponed.
California radio preacher Harold Camping claimed that the world would end in September 1994, in May, 2011 and then in October, 2011. He is not the last to make such predictions. There are still groups looking to 2012, 2016 and 2034 as their target dates. No doubt others will join the parade of false prophets before long.
Conflicting prophecies are certainly nothing new. The Old Testament tells of many such disputes among the Jews, such as the struggle between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. In the first century AD, of course, the Jewish leaders considered Jesus and His followers as false prophets.
From the very beginning of the Church there were rival teachers as well. As St Paul reminded the elders of the Church at Ephesus (Acts 20:28-29), there were competing evangelists going from community to community with a different take on the Gospel. Inevitably members of the local community would be led to follow them and themselves “rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:30). We would do well to reread Paul’s warning when we hear on TV or read in novels about “secret” or “newly discovered” Scriptures which “the Vatican” has suppressed. Never secret and most known since the first centuries, these writings reflect the contending religious visions among the early believers.
The “Blessed Hope”
Among the central doctrines of the Church from its earliest days has been the expected second coming of Christ. “He shall come again,” the Creeds confess, “to judge the living and the dead.” We particularly focus on this promise during the Feast of the Ascension of Christ which we are celebrating this week. The Acts of the Apostles tells of this event. Christ instructs His disciples and then is taken up out of their sight. “And while they looked steadfastly towards heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven’” (Acts 1:10-11).
The promise of Christ’s return is found in almost every New Testament book. But do the Scriptures predict when this will happen? Apocalyptic books such as the Old Testament book of Daniel and the New Testament Revelation to John indicate that the events they describe “must shortly take place” (Revelation 1:1) but even these books are nowhere nearly as precise in dating what “shortly” means as some people have predicted.
Look to the Here and Now
Just before Christ’s ascension the disciples asked Him a question which He refused to answer. Expecting, as did most Jews, that the Messiah would free their nation from foreign control, the disciples “asked Him, ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’” (Acts 1:6) The Lord’s response has served as the Church’s yardstick in discussing the Second Coming. “And He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority’” (Acts 1:7). We are not meant to know when God will act; we are meant to be confident that He will do so and to live accordingly.
Earlier in His ministry the Lord Jesus told a parable that speaks to this issue: the story of the ten virgin attendants at a marriage feast (Matthew 25:1-13). Five came prepared with sufficient oil for their lamps; the others did not. They had to go and buy more; and as a result they missed the feast. Jesus’ final words put this parable in the context we are discussing today. “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming” (v.13). We are to keep alert, to be prepared for the coming of the Lord – whether it is His ultimate return at the end of the age or His coming to me at the end of my life.
Commenting on this parable, St John Chrysostom says that the “oil” required for the coming of the Bridegroom is the alms we offer to those in need. Refusing to give alms marks us as fools for we have neglected to do what is needed to enter the wedding feast with the Bridegroom. We have come to the feast empty-handed because we have neglected to open our hand to the needy.
Another image from this parable is found in the troparion of the Bridegroom, sung on the first days of Great Week. “Beware, therefore, O my soul lest you fall into a deep slumber and be delivered to death and the door of the kingdom be closed on you.” We can easily forget that the Lord is coming and drift off to sleep if we are not constantly alert. Cultivating the life in Christ (“trimming our lamps”) requires our continual attention.
We are reminded to keep alert whenever we gather in the church for prayer where we stand facing east. This ancient custom which we inherit from the Old Testament era is connected in the Church to the words of Christ, “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matthew 24:27). We face the East, the direction of His coming, in the imagery of this saying.
As we stand in church and look up we see the image of Christ in glory, the Pantocrator, in the dome or another prominent place. This is in fact the central detail in the icon of the Ascension: Christ, enthroned upon the cherubim, taken up from the disciples. Placing this icon in the domes of our churches is a graphic reminder that “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
Feast of the Ascension, Hymn at the Liti