October 22, this year and every year--a teachable moment for those who have lived in hope for something that hasn’t yet happened.
Today is the 170th anniversary of what Adventists and the progeny of the religious movements that grew from the teachings of William Miller euphemistically call “The Great Disappointment." Talk about an understatement. It was closer to “The Great Annihilation of Hope,” or “The Great Theological Mistake Big Enough to End the Whole Discussion” or “The Great Challenge that If It Doesn’t Break You Will Make You Stronger.”
Turns out it wasn’t the first time Christians had been majorly disappointed. As great as the disappointment might have been for those in the middle of it, it was nothing compared to the twin fundamental challenges faced by first century Christians.
For them, the first extraordinary disappointment was the execution of Jesus Christ by those in power. Their beloved leader was killed. Dead. Pretty hard to come back from that. (Cue the resurrection.)
The second disappointment, the same one faced by the early Adventists, was that after the miracle of his resurrection and his ascent into heaven, he didn’t come back like he said he would. Even though he had promised. And even though people—and this is important—were doing everything they could to cause him to come back, it didn’t change anything.
For some, this disappointing set of circumstances meant cutting their losses, bailing out, and never looking back. But for the ones persuaded that Jesus was someone unlike anyone they had ever encountered before that wasn’t an option. So they tried to make some sense of it.
The various apostles and writers of the New Testament dealt with it differently:
For Mark, writing nearest to the death of Christ, it was an opportunity to understand the dynamic of the messianic secret ("Who do men say I am?"), and to embrace the mystery of this extraordinary and unprecedented occurrence: God with us. I think we can see this exemplified in Christ’s relationship with Martha.
For Matthew it was living lives that were so enthused with Christ that the disciples became Christ to the world, and had the same impact on those whose lives they touched as Christ had had on theirs. ("Go ye therefore and make disciples."). This is exemplified, perhaps, in Christ’s relationship with the woman at the well.
For Luke it was the search for meaning in history and the continued search for the ultimate redemption of humankind (“But we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel"). This is exemplified in part by Christ’s relationship with Mary, his own mother.
For Paul, who was not one of the twelve, it was the paradox of the Gospel (Jesus' death was a part of God's mysterious plan; the weakest is actually the strongest; through his death, not his life, he has saved the world). This is demonstrated in the relationship Jesus had with Mary Magdalene.
For Peter, it was coming to a profound understanding of God’s true purpose (“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”). His take is my favorite, and demonstrated by what the New Testament calls the Bride of Christ, for which Peter had special responsibility.
And finally, for John, the dissonance and disappointment is resolved in the personal search for meaning in the knowledge of Jesus himself (“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.") This is the framework through which those who believe in Jesus were to present his claims of Lordship, and his gracious love, to the world in which they would be living.
With this cloud of witnesses, what was the Great Disappointment can also be understood as a transformational spiritual moment in the lives of those who have had to confront disappointment—as advocates of equality in ministry are being forced to do right now.
Mark and Martha call us to embrace the unknown circumstances of our journeys to be disciples. Matthew and the woman at the well call us to exemplify in our own lives the gracious character of Christ himself. Luke and the Madonna ask us to look beyond the present moment to the horizon of our hopes, treasuring in our hearts that which is unattained but not unknown.
Paul and Mary Magdalene call us to treasure the mystery of salvation in our hearts, and the upside-down-ness of a world where the weakest are actually the strongest, and the shadow of death is vanquished not by the sword, but by the unquenchable, passionate light of love, howbeit small. Peter calls us to be the church of Christ’s imagination—the bride who waits with patience and the fidelity.
And John, the beloved, reminds us that our life in Christ announces his saving grace to the whole world—even those who are experiencing disappointment and disillusionment.
I was one of the producers of the General Conference's broadcast from the William Miller Farm in 1994. I got to spend a lot of time clamoring around the place and researching and developing the scripts and the show itself. It was a very cathartic experience for me, realizing that we weren't so much marking the date itself as celebrating the way the people of that time eventually turned that bitter disappointment into a transformational experience.
If we look at October 22 as a transaction on the cosmic timeline, it is nothing more than an embarrassingly wrong date marking all the wrong assumptions and conclusions. But if we look at it as a moment of profound learning, there is the possibility that it can serve as a marker for where all of our understandings turned a corner. So while October 22 is not a celebration, it’s not exactly a disappointment either. Call it a milestone. The journey continues.
Ray Tetz is the president and creative director of Mind Over Media, Inc. in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Title Image: The William Miller Home in Whitehall, NY.