One of the disappointments Christians have had to deal with is the delay of Christ’s return to earth to finish his saving work and “make all things new.” In the gospels Jesus gave the impression that he would return while some of those listening to him would still be alive. When some of his followers asked him to get specific as to when he would return, Jesus replied that he didn’t know for sure, that only the Father knew the exact date. Two thousand years later we are still waiting.
It can feel like the promise that the Cubs will win the World Series again. “Most Cub fans have coped with their disappointment with the loveable losers by replying to that promise with, “Don’t hold your breath.”
To respond to the apathy—ie lack of passion—that unfulfilled expectations can breed in all of us, they used the term proleptic. In its use as a theological term proleptic means a vision of the future which is so powerful that even though it hasn’t happened yet, it draws people toward it, sort of like a magnet pulls pins, and they start behaving as if it were a present reality.
The closest analogy I think of is how my daughter and her husband behaved during her recent pregnancy. They bought a crib, painted the baby’s room and picked out a name. They acted almost like the baby was already out of her womb. What encouraged their anticipation, of course, was that they saw all kinds of observable signs that the promise would be fulfilled.
We also have witnessed a lot of the signs which Jesus said would be evidence of his imminent return—wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, civil strife—but still no return to make all things new.
Perhaps a better analogy than my daughter’s pregnancy is Dr. King’s I have a dream speech. In 1963, there were hints that his dream might come true but no decisive empirical evidence. In fact, 50 years later, some contend that there is still no convincing evidence. Yet, that image of little black and white children playing together has had tremendous proleptic power to motivate people to live as if it were a present reality.
Three white doctors who work for Circle Family Health Care in the Austin neighborhood have committed themselves to living where they work. A black friend of mine who is married to a Thai woman has chosen to be a member of the Thai congregation here in town for twenty years, even though he experiences the challenges of bridging cultures every day of his life.
The prayer for the day in ELCA churches yesterday was, “Stir up the wills of all who look to you, Lord God, and strengthen our faith in your coming, that, transformed by grace, we may walk in your way.”
Those who prayed that prayer from the heart knew the power of a proleptic promise.