What a year. Like any, 2014 delivered great good and evil. Here in San Francisco, people married, babies arrived, and the ragtag Giants won yet another World Series for goodness’ sake! We smiled, laughed, and cheered. But we also watched friends die and widows mourn, felt the injustice of our still racist nation, and followed an endless slough of horrific world news. We cried, protested, and yearned for some silver lining in it all.
For many, the scale of good and bad wasn't even close. Evil seemed to win this year. As encouraging as our ability to land on a comet might have been, our continued inability to not kill one another is significantly more discomforting. Just consider this very brief list:
- Russia and Ukraine
- Israel and Palestine
- The CIA Torture Report
- Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice
And I’ll add some our own neighborhood’s troubling signs:
- Theft and injustice
- Homelessness and drug addiction
- 2,500 Central American youth living as refugees in San Francisco alone
As fancy and impressive as our species’ progress may appear, our world is a mess. Life here is sad and hard and out of order. People aren’t supposed to get cancer and die, especially not in their twenties. And Cystic Fibrosis shouldn’t exist to kill our Hopes. Death, disease, pain, injustice, war, hatred, violence - these things are all foreign to us and the world. It was never supposed to be like this for us here.
A year like this calls for cries of maranatha, a saying found in 1 Corinthians 16:22 typically translated as, “Our Lord, come!” or, “Come, Lord Jesus!” 2014 teaches us to adopt this cry because it proves how badly we need Jesus to come fix things. As C.S. Lewis said in The Problem of Pain, and protesters everywhere continue to demonstrate, these woes become God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” And when we begin to hear the sad tune of the world rightly, we learn to pray maranatha, come Lord Jesus!
But, maranatha might actually mean more than this. Interestingly, it is a transliteration, not a translation. Paul wrote his letters in Greek, using known Greek words. Here though, he used Greek letters to spell out, or transliterate, maranatha (μαρὰνἀθά). This was essentially a form of quotation, meaning it must have been a relatively common figure of Aramaic speech, the language spoken by Jesus and his friends. In addition, it’s actually a two-part phrase, not a word. However, sentences didn’t contain spaces in the original texts. The words all smushed together. Because of this, it’s actually ambiguous whether the real phrase was maranâ thâ' (μαρὰνἀ θά) or maran 'athâ' (μαρὰν ἀθά). The first possibility, maranâ thâ’, indeed means, “Our Lord come!” The world is not right so we beckon God to come. It is a cry for help and comfort. But the second possibility, maran ‘athâ’, means, “Our Lord has come!” Hope isn’t lost, after all, for Christ came! This is our Christmas cry of hope and thanksgiving.
More than mere technical Greek mumbo jumbo, maranatha is a theological gold nugget. In just a few mysterious syllables, it accidentally captures the paradoxical heart cry of the Christian. Praise God, our Lord has come! Yet, come back to us, Jesus, for all is not well here! This Christmas, perhaps more than ever, we ought to embrace the ambiguity and make both possibilities our prayer.
Come Lord, Jesus! Our Lord has come!