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Learn how three New Testament writers approach the subject of parousia, or the Second Coming of Christ, and how these interpretations, each one closely tied with its author's historical context, can be read and understood by modern Catholics.


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Parousia: Living in the Endtime

by Wilfrid Harrington, O.P.

The Greek word parousia means “presence” or “arrival.” In the ancient Greek-speaking world, it was used to describe the ceremonial visit of a ruler or the apparition of a god.

In the New Testament it is used of the appearance or coming of the glorified Christ at the close of salvation history. In dramatic fashion, it expresses faith in a final act of God that will mark the goal of human history. This act will be the establishment, in its fullness, of the kingdom of God. After New Testament times this came to be known, somewhat unhelpfully, as the Second Coming of Christ.

The earliest Christians expected this consummation to happen in their own time. The expectation may be, and often is, present in the New Testament without explicit use of the term parousia.

Parousia and Apocalyptic

In practice, the theme of parousia is one of the more difficult to comprehend themes of New Testament study. First, there is the concept itself. Many expected the parousia to occur soon, with, however, warnings that the time of its occurrence was entirely unknown.

The parousia has to be viewed against an apocalyptic background. One feature of apocalyptic literature is keen expectation of the endtime. It was thought that God's final intervention would follow hard on a perceived historical crisis.

There is in apocalyptic a looking to life beyond death, a life very different from the life of our experience. There is always a definitive judgment: the final clash between good and evil, issuing in the total victory of God. There will be triumphant vindication of the elect. All of this lies behind the imagery of the Son of Man coming in glory.

The New Testament presents a message that is linked to a salvation history that had a beginning, developed, and was oriented to an end fixed from the start. This end would be marked by the triumph of God and humanity over all forces of evil.

Yet, certain as is the end of the world, it is not at all easy to represent it. This could only be done in imaginative and symbolic language. This symbolic language of apocalyptic makes it more challenging for readers to understand the concept of the parousia.

Besides, Christians soon experienced the delay of the expected parousia. They perceived that the nearness of the end was not a question of date but a theological affirmation. The incarnation, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ have brought the religious history of humankind nearly to the goal of its term. This is the last age—no matter how long it may endure.

In this issue of Scripture From Scratch, we will approach the subject of the parousia through three passages that may be taken as a modest cross section of the New Testament. The passages will feature modifications in the understanding of the parousia. We will see that while expectation of the coming of the Lord is constant, the perception of it varies. We find that expectation of an imminent coming turns out to be just that—expectation.

The evidence of reinterpretation in these texts is a pointer to us today. We also seek to reinterpret the parousia in terms that make sense to us.

Paul's Interpretations

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Paul dealt with a practical problem in the Thessalonian community: Brothers and sisters had died. In light of expectation of an imminent coming of the Lord, it was feared that they would have missed out on a wondrous occasion. Paul's assurance was that those who had died would be raised for that coming.

Notable is his observation: “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord.” At this stage, in his earliest letter, Paul acknowledged the likelihood of the parousia happening in his lifetime.

Significant are the apocalyptic language and imagery in the passage. We, with our scientific mentality, are constantly tempted to translate such imagery into logical concepts. We thereby miss the point.

Paul had inherited the Hebraic world view, which envisaged two ages: the present age and the age to come. But he came to regard the historical coming of Christ as the goal of God's plan of salvation. In his perception, Christ's coming, death and resurrection were the eschatological climax—“the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), the beginning of “the resurrection of the dead” (Rom 1:4). For him, then, the two ages now overlapped. This means that those who have believed in Christ and received the Spirit live out their lives as Christ's in the overlap of the ages, “between the times.”

It might be said that Paul's eschatology is backward-looking rather than forward-looking; at least it lies in tension between the two. Paul's message was eschatological not because of what he still hoped would happen, but because of what he believed had already happened.

What had happened (resurrection and the gift of the Spirit) already had the character of the end and showed what the end would be like. The heart of Paul's message in 1 Thessalonians is assurance to his readers that all faithful Christians “will be with the Lord forever.” As time went by, he came to appreciate more clearly the nature of that “coming of the Lord.” He came to regard it not as another event within history but as a history-shattering reality that communicates the fullness of life.

In his last letter he declares that “the time of my departure has come” (2 Tim 4:6). He looks forward to the “crown of righteousness,” which he confidently knows he will receive from the Lord on that day of the Lord's appearing. He has, in short, come to accept that the parousia would be after his death.

This evidence of reinterpretation by Paul offers a headline for our contemporary understanding of parousia.

Mark

In Chapter 13, Mark deals with a problem in his community. His Gospel was, most likely, written soon after 70 a.d., a date that marked the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans at the close of the disastrous Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 a.d. In the crisis atmosphere of the war, some Christians were convinced that the end would directly follow the destruction of Jerusalem. It had not come. They were disillusioned.

Though Mark was at pains to correct their false interpretation, he himself believed in a real parousia and, indeed, in its imminence. “Those days,” the days of the “tribulation” had begun (Mk 13:17-19). The parousia itself was not part of the current crisis. It would follow it.

Mark gave his impression of the parousia in apocalyptic language in terms almost wholly drawn from the Old Testament (13:24-25). The stage was set. Now the Son of Man could appear (13:26-27).

For Mark, the glorified Christ would not come to execute judgment: the one purpose of his coming was to gather together the scattered people of God—a familiar Old Testament theme. They would appear as his elect; they would belong to Christ (see 1 Thes 4:15-17).

Mark did believe that the parousia would occur in his lifetime or, at least, that his generation would not have passed before the end had come (13:30).

But he would not specify day or hour because he could not. For that matter, neither the angels nor the Son himself knew the precise date of the End. It remains the secret of the Father (13:22).This statement is a pretty clear indication that Mark, like the early church in general, was not aware of any precise prediction by Jesus. Their expectation was a deduction from their conviction that the Christ-event had inaugurated the last age. The culmination of that age, they felt, could not long be delayed.

Revelation: Come, Lord Jesus

The Book of Revelation is the work of a Christian prophet named John (Rev 1:1,3) addressed to a circle of Christian communities in towns of the Roman province of Asia (western Turkey). He viewed them as threatened by persecution.

He would encourage them, but his encouragement was paradoxical: Victory was won on the cross. This was the pattern of Christian victory. The enduring comfort is that the powerless victims will be—and will be seen to be—the ultimate victors.

The closing promise of the Lord, “Behold, I am coming soon" (22:7), was an assurance that John's readers longed to hear. His promise to victors was all very well. The reality was that “conquering” meant dying! It was comforting to look to the One who was coming soon, bringing his reward with him (22:12). He was the one who had conquered by laying down his life. They, if they were faithful, would share his victory and his triumph. They look to his coming.

In Mark 13:26-27, we have seen, the Son of Man comes in clouds to “gather his elect, to harvest them.” In Revelation 14:14-20, “one like a son of man" waits for the word of God, who alone knows the hour (see Mk 13:32). The harvest is ripe. The wheat is gathered into the heavenly barns. “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me” (22:12).

The coming of Christ is a blessing for the one who has hearkened to the challenging and encouraging prophetic message of John. Inspired by the Spirit, the church (“the bride”) prays its mantra: “Our Lord, come!”

The promise of coming stands in the liturgical context of the Eucharist. As they now celebrate their Eucharist, they have his presence with them. They have the reminder of his victory and the assurance of his promise: “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).

They do not have to wait, bereft, for his final coming. Yet they long for God. “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil 1:23). It is in their going to him that the Lord will come to them—and to us.

Conclusion

Paul, Mark and the seer John all seemed to expect an imminent parousia. Were they, then, mistaken? In one sense, obviously, yes. The parousia of the Son of Man did not happen in their time; it has not happened up to our day.

Yet, we find a basic truth in their conviction. The death and rising of Jesus did usher in the last age. In Jesus, God had spoken his final word (see Heb 1:2); there remains only the consummation (see 1 Cor 15:28).

Besides, parousia is a symbol—even an apocalyptic symbol (see Mk 13:24-27; 1 Thess 4:16-17). It gives dramatic expression to the belief that God's saving plan must be perfectly rounded. And there is a fittingness to the symbol.

God's definitive act was the sending of his Son. The reappearance of that Son, in glory, would signal the triumphant close of the drama of salvation. It is somewhat akin to the white screen with its “THE END” at the finish of old-time movies.

Perhaps it is best to recognize that the parousia is myth. Myth is a symbolic form of expression couched in narrative that is not intended to be historical. It deals with realities that transcend experience. The parousia is just such a reality: the final victory of God in Christ made wholly manifest. This can only be expressed in symbol and imagery. It is, properly understood, myth.

While we cannot share the view that the end is near, nor look for a coming of the Son of Man on clouds, we do share the faith of the first Christians in God's victory in Christ. And, for each of us, the “parousia” will be our meeting with Christ when we pass out of this life into the life of God. It should be our Christian hope that we will be fondly welcomed by him.

After all, Paul, despite his own words about parousia, when it came to it, spoke not of Christ coming to him but, rather, of his going to Christ: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.…My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better" (Phil 1:21,23).

Wilfrid Harrington is a Dominican priest in Ireland. A well-respected Scripture scholar, he has written numerous articles and books on the topic of apocalyptic writing and the Book of Revelation. He is the author of a previous Scripture From Scratch, “Understanding the Apocalypse” (N1199).

Next: Matthew's Five Sermons (by Barbara Reid, O.P.)

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