Friday of Trinity 10: Jewish Millenarianism and the Fall of Jerusalem

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“For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another…”

Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for them. Well, in this passage, Israel’s enemies end up building an embankment around them, surrounding them, leveling them to the ground, with their children. The temple is leveled stone by stone. How did Israel’s enemies get to that point?

They got to that point because Israel was not praying for their enemies, but rebelling against them. Christianity ended up toppling the Roman Empire and, for good or for ill, replacing it with its own governance and authority. And this because it revolutionized culture with a different message that was compelling.

Arguably that revolutionary message is still revolutionizing things, insofar as wherever Christianity goes it changes the hearts and minds making up the political culture, softening the world’s it “invades” as far as slavery, women’s rights, brutality, punishment, and treatment of foreigners goes.

But the Jews in Jesus’ day wanted a different sort of revolution. They wanted a military one. Therefore they were a legitimate threat. Where Christians changed the world by being good neighbors, paying their taxes, and praying for the leaders – hardly a political threat! – the militant Jews were indeed a great threat, because they sought a military expulsion of the Roman Empire from Israel.

They were millenarians. Millenarians are a species of Gnostic who are bit more worldly in their outlook. Millenarians fused together the horizontal dualism of apocalyptic Christianity and the vertical dualism of Gnosticism.

What is the horizontal dualism of apocalyptic Christianity? It’s the “now, not yet” idea. That is, “now” we live by faith in a fallen world, but “yet” there shall come, when Jesus returns, a restored world. “Now” we live by faith, with the “yet” hidden from us. But for some, like St. John, that “yet” becomes unhidden, hence “apocalyptic.” (Apocalypse means “unhidden.”)

Gnostics teach a vertical dualism. There is “down here,” which is a deficient echo of a higher existence, something we ought to escape. And then there is the “up there,” the realm of oneness into which gnosis helps us escape. Whereas in Christianity faith is the necessary faculty needed to keep our hearts anchored on the world to come while living in this fallen world, in Gnosticism, gnosis can get you immediate “resurrection.”

Note, you don’t need a body for resurrection in Gnosticism, because it’s purely a resurrection of the spirit. That fits their rejection of the flesh in general, their view of it as essentially corrupt. By contrast, in Christianity, you cannot have resurrection without a body. The body is needed. Thus, we have to await the resurrection in time before we can fully enjoy the resurrection.

Millenarians fuse both dualisms. They believe you can have immediate salvation, in the flesh, now. It’s what philosopher Erik Voegelin called the “imminentizing of the eschaton,” which is a complicated phrase meaning, “what should be delayed to Christ’s return can become manifest now.”

Christ’s return isn’t so much a bodily return in time – Jesus is at the right hand, and one day will reveal Himself from God’s right hand and inaugurate the world to come – but more a spiritual one. The messiah isn’t so much a bodily person as he is a spirit of the people, which may have a messianic spokesperson or shaman-type “leader,” but in the end is more a movement than a person.

As we’ve meditate on before, this is the spirit of Antichrist, the leaking out of Christ from His flesh and blood and reconstitution in political movement.

This spirit permeated Jerusalem in the first century. They firmly believed God was endowing their nation with His divinity, so that they could reestablish the messianic kingdom on earth, as it was in David’s day. For that misunderstanding, they were slaughtered.

The truth was hidden from them, because they refused to recognize in Jesus the true fulfillment of the kingdom of God. It is not of this world. It’s a spiritual kingdom, of faith, in a world to come. Its fruits in this world come not by political or military means, but by subtle shifts in cultural attitude, as stated above. Where did slavery end first? Where did women’s rights first begin to be respected? Where did abortion and infanticide first end? Which culture first ended gladitorial contests? On and on we could go.

Many think, because of the philosopher Hegel, that Christianity was just a necessary stage in the development of a more humanist “consciousness,” and even now, we’re seeing consciousness transcending Christianity. Christianity, in other words, was a temporary crutch to move us to the next stage of human evolution.

That’s quite a wager. The fact is, the day divinity is no longer seen as the sole possession of the Person of Jesus Christ, that is the day millenarianism arises, because now divinity is seen as the possible possession of any person or movement. And wherever that happens, bloodshed happens.

Jesus does God best; He bleeds. When others do God, others bleed. That could be the divinized ones themselves – killed off by the superior forces who fear their insurrection – or worse, it could be the victims of the divinizers who believe their advent is ushering in a new age, and all who get in their way must be eliminated. We’ve seen the results of that sort of millenarianism in the showers and in the gulag.

If only people knew who, what, where, and when is the day of their visitation. It’s Jesus Christ, in His Church, Who comes by Word and Sacrament, whenever that is going on, but usually Sunday. If only they knew, they would be spared much bloodshed.

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