St. Paul wrote:
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 – May 7, 2012)
To be honest, I am not “encouraged” by these words; I’m confused as hell! What is Paul talking about? What was he smoking? I mean, c’mon! Archangels descending, God playing a trumpet, the dead rising, the living floating in the clouds, everyone meeting the Lord in the air! What is this? Is this the “Rapture”? ~ Well, no . . . what this is is Paul’s apocalytic vision of something called a “Hellenistic parousia“. What Paul is talking about here is comfort, comfort for relatively new Christians in the city of Thessalonika who expected Jesus to return almost immediately but who, instead, had experienced the death of loved ones and now were worried whether their loved ones would share in the expected victory of Christ over the world. They and Paul would have experienced the arrival of, if not kings or heads of state, at least very high and important government figures to their town or another. Their arrival was a “parousia” (and word meaning “presence”). In the First Century Greek-speaking or “Hellenistic” world, when such personages arrived it was the tradition that the people would go out to greet them and escort them into the city. In this vision that Paul describes, the members of the church, both the dead and the living, will great Christ on his return and escort him into their reality. Since Jesus had been observed “ascending” into the heavens (Luke 24:51), it must be that he will return from the sky and, therefore, his followers will “meet the Lord in the air.” This isn’t about Christians being snatched away from some “tribulation” which will then follow; it’s about Christians meeting Jesus as he returns to comfort them and begin his long reign. As a comfort to those who had lost loved ones, Paul assures them that their beloved departed will be among the first to welcome the Lord’s return. ~ It’s still pretty fantastic, though, isn’t it? Blaring trumpets, angels, rising dead, and a descending god . . . that’s pretty amazing stuff! And that’s the nature of apocalyptic. It speaks to its reader in the here-and-now with fantastic visions of an imagined future, but it’s purpose is to address the present. The Rapture nonsense, which treats it as some sort of oracle or “prophecy” laying out a timetable for the end of the world, is just that – nonsense. The message for us in the 21st Century is the same as it was to the Thessalonians in the First Century, not a message predicting the end of the world, but a message of comfort and hope. Comfort that our departed loved ones have not “lost out” on the coming fulfillment of God’s reign, and a very present hope that we will be (as the Book of Common Prayer puts) “reunited with those who have gone before.” So I guess, after all, I am encouraged by these words!