Thanksgiving weekend gives us a chance to look back and to look forward: both at once. In our minds we remember other gatherings in years past, with family and friends: part of the pleasure of this time. But we’re also turned toward the future, toward Christmas and the New Year. We’re looking firmly ahead and we’re moving forward.
The ancient Hebrews had their own way of taking a temporal fix. In our first reading, from Isaiah, the prophet speaks a word about the “days to come” (Is. 2:2): that is, about God’s promise for the future. But a literal rendition would be something like “in the backward side of days” rather than “in the days to come”: meaning that for the Jews, their faces were turned toward what had already taken place in the past, toward God’s mighty acts of deliverance. But that meant the future was behind them, on the backside as it were.
In other words, the past was before them, and the future behind them, unseen and undetermined. This same formulation occurs again and again in the prophets of Israel. For them, moving into the future did not involve trying to spy out what lay ahead, but rather in looking back to what God had already done.
For the prophets, it was important to keep your eye on the pattern of the past, in order to guide your steps into the future. New Testament scholar Gerhard Lohfink compares it to the person who’s rowing a boat sitting backward: unable to see what lies ahead, the oarsman remains oriented and on course by keeping a fix on the direction he came from (Does God Need the Church?).
This way of approaching the past and the future, and this way of moving ahead, remain important for the Church. Never mind that it goes against modern conceptions of how to proceed, by way of imagining the future that lies ahead. The glass of the future remains dark and unillumined. Keeping with Lohfink’s oarsman, the person who is advancing into a fog bank is better advised not to imagine anything but to keep his eye peeled for the point of origin. The future is cloudy, but God’s promise is sure. The backward stance of the oarsman is the best way to make progress, to apply propulsive force. We look back and remember what has been done, and we move ahead into the future, trusting in God.
In our Gospel today, Jesus applies the same method by looking to the coming of the Son of Man, the mysterious figure who appears at the end of time to establish God’s reign over all things. But even here, the Son of Man is a figure drawn from the past, “one like a son of Adam,” the father of the human race. Jesus is looking to the future, but keeping his eye on the past, with Adam and Eve, on the point of origin of the human race. There lies the pattern whose shadow reveals the future. He’s facing God’s promise, and his work in creation, as he conjures with the future that lies behind his back.
“For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:37). Again, Jesus is drawing a bead on the future by looking to the past, back to Noah’s time and the Flood. Here the point is that the coming of the Son of Man will be unexpected. It will overtake the world suddenly, and people will not be ready.
Another way of saying this is that the kingdom of God will break out while people are not focused on it but going about their everyday business, at work and at home. Things will be going along quite steadily, and then God’s kingdom will come! In Noah’s time, people were not properly oriented and were facing in the wrong direction. They were so busy looking ahead that they missed what was coming.
Advent Sunday orients us to past and future, by reminding us of Jesus’ second coming. The people in Noah’s day were not ready, but we must be ready. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matt. 24:42). Vigilance comes from attention to God’s promises: a pattern revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matt. 24:44). It may be unexpected, but God’s promise is sure. We will be ready if we remember what God has done for us by raising Jesus Christ from the dead.
The future is uncertain, and necessarily so, because it is in God’s hands and not our own. We imagine the future but it remains just that: imaginary. What is certain is God’s providence: his promise in the past, and his grace and favor to us in the time to come. Keep your eyes on the pattern of the past, where God is faithful and true. That’s our proper orientation, as Christians, as we peer into the future for the coming of the Son of Man.