A blessed new liturgical year to all! We always begin the year with the Advent season, with deeply hopeful expectation focused on one central truth: the Lord Jesus Christ is coming!
Catholic tradition speaks of three comings of Christ, all of which become part of our journey through Advent. The first coming refers to the one that we most commonly associate with the Christmas season, the birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, more than two thousand years ago. We never cease to marvel at the mystery of the Incarnation, when the Word of God become man and lived among us.
Expectation for the coming of the Messiah had deep roots among the people of the Old Testament. Our first reading today gives us one prophetic expression of this expectation. When Jeremiah was called, the leaders of Judah and the people were reverting to idolatry. The prophet warned them against this sin, declaring that it would lead to their eventual defeat. When the people did not repent, the words of Jeremiah came true: the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, captured and destroyed Jerusalem and sent its leaders into exile. In the midst of the turmoil of that devastating defeat, Jeremiah prophesied the coming of a Messiah who would be a descendant of David, “a just shoot,” who would “do what is right and just in the land,” bringing safety and security for Jerusalem, Judah, and Israel.
Another coming of Christ that the Advent season draws us to reflect on is his coming in glory at the end of time, the Parousia – commonly referred to as the “Second Coming,” even though it is also his final coming. This future event is a fundamental tenet of our faith, as we proclaim in the Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his Kingdom will have no end.” Today’s Gospel paints for us a vivid picture of this Second Coming – “the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay…. People will die of fright….” Scary words! This apocalyptic language tells us not simply that there will be natural disasters but more important, that everything in this world will pass away. What we consider to be magnificent, like heavenly bodies or powerful nations, will eventually end. Their destruction stands in sharp contrast to the lasting glory and power of the Lord, whose Kingdom will last forever.
The Lord tells us that he will come again not to frighten us but to move us to vigilance. He warns us: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of life…. Be vigilant at all times and pray….” (For those who follow the daily liturgy, today’s Gospel will sound familiar, since we just pondered it last week, the week of Christ the King; the first part of the reading was on Thursday and the rest yesterday.) The season of Advent calls us to be ready at all times. We may consider it a four-week prayer vigil, during which we prepare spiritually for the coming of a great feast. We empty ourselves, acknowledging that this world is fleeting, so as to fully receive the great blessings that the coming feast brings.
In our preparation for the Second Coming, we apply to ourselves the messages that the Lord gave through Jeremiah in preparation for the first coming. Just as the people of old were called to forsake idolatry and return to the Lord, so we, learning from their experience, are called to cast away all our idolatries and to let go of our attachments to worldly pursuits. The Lord is coming to set us free and to save us. If we respond properly to this time of grace, we need not fear the risk of eternal exile.
There is a third coming of Christ – or perhaps it should be called an intermediate coming – that is also an important dimension of Advent: his coming in the present moment. The Lord who has come and has died and risen, the same Lord who will come again, is even now truly with us, in us and among us. Our life is not only a matter of waiting for God, but also of living in God. This is why St. Paul exhorts us in today’s second reading, “conduct yourselves to please God” and “do so even more.” The Lord is present with us to make us “increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” The best preparation for his coming again is to live each day, “blameless in holiness,” giving ourselves in love. This is the season when we celebrate God giving us the greatest gift of all, his Only Begotten Son. Culturally, we associate Christmas with lots of gift-giving. The greatest gift we can give – the gift we offer to God and to our neighbor – is ourselves.
As we progress through this Advent, with vigilance and with joyful expectation, we turn to the Lord, guided by today’s Psalm: “To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.” We learn best how to prepare for his coming when we let him show us the way: “Your ways, O LORD, make known to me; teach me your paths, guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my savior, and for you I wait all the day.”
As I begin the season of Advent, what worldly pursuits and idolatries will I give up? How can I be more vigilant emptying myself and acknowledging that this world is fleeting? During this Advent, how will I give myself in love to others?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 1. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.