Advent: The Lord came once and He’s coming again.
Christmas is coming Christmas cards have been on sale for several weeks. I’ve already seen a garden centre advertising Christmas trees and a shop selling all you need to make a crib. All around us the world of commerce is gearing up for Christmas.
Harry Potter films do Christmas well – a flurry of snow, Hagrid dragging in a huge tree (presumably from the creepy forest), everyone riding in horse-drawn sledges and that magic happy snow music. To many people looking forward to Christmas is to chase a fantasy of lost childhood which often fails to meet the expectation. What kind of Christmas did you have? ‘Well you know, um, quiet. It’s nice for children though isn’t it?’ To say Christmas often turns out to be an expensive anticlimax has been said many times before. For many people it’s the looking forward to the great day that matters, rather than the day itself. To me the best bits of Christmas are not fantasy at all – seeing the family together again, and celebrating the birth of the Redeemer at Midnight Mass.
Advent is coming Advent does involve preparing to celebrate the birth of the child Jesus 2000 years ago, but the first two weeks are about staying awake for the Lord’s second coming when we shall meet him face to face. On the third Sunday we do commemorate the earthly life of Jesus but the Gospel is about John the Baptist sternly exhorting us to ‘repent for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand’. Only on the fourth week do we hear about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem but even this is full of harsh realism, a typically heavy handed piece of bureaucracy which sends a young pregnant women on a stressful journey and a birth in completely unsatisfactory circumstances because there was no room at the inn.
The second coming of Jesus Christ will not be as a baby but as King and Judge. The scriptures speak of difficult times with a final assault by the powers of evil before the final fulfilment of the Kingdom and they speak darkly of the antichrist and end of the world. The Church’s teaching is neatly summarised in the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 671 to 679). I explained some scripture to someone to whom I take Holy Communion recently by saying that one day we shall meet the Lord face to face and she said, searchingly ‘and do you believe that?’. It was Jesus who taught us the ‘Our Father’ and he included the line ‘thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven’ and we often say ‘he will come in glory to judge the living and the dead’. The real meaning of Advent is very challenging to catechists as well as catechumens and candidates. Do we look forward to him coming in glory and majesty or do we secretly think to ourselves ‘well that probably won’t happen just yet’. When we say ‘thy Kingdom come’ do we not only believe it’s going to happen – but are we looking forward to it. And what we are looking forward to is the ultimate opposite of an anticlimax. It is about that which lasts even after heaven and earth have passed passed away. This is our faith.
How literally are we to take the details? The word Armageddon appears only once in the Greek New Testament. Some of the events prophesied in the New Testament, such as the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD70, have already happened. Members of the New Testament Church seem to have expected the Lord to return within their own life time which he clearly didn’t. Does time have any meaning in eternity? Prophesy may contain deep truth but it may be attempting to describe the indescribable. St Paul observes that we ‘prophesy imperfectly’ (I Corinthians 13:9) and that ‘now we see only reflections in a mirror, mere riddles, but then we shall be seeing face to face’ (1 Corinthians 13:12).
In a recent Gospel (33rd Sunday of the year, Luke 21:5-19) Jesus
- Warns people not to rely on things like the Temple which will pass away
- Warns them not to try to predict when the end will come and not to be taken in by dangerous distractions like false messiahs
- Warns his people not to be afraid when disasters happen
- To use every opportunity to witness to the Gospel and to trust him in it. He promised to give them the eloquence and wisdom they needed to witness
- Reminded them that not a hair on their head would be lost
- Pointed out that endurance would save them their lives.
And how anxious should we be when we meet the Lord face to face? If we are in Christ then we are adopted sons and daughters – we are members of the family. We are not relying on perfection produced by our own muscular spirituality to justify us but on the sacrifice of the One who was crucified. His warning to stay awake is really about staying close to him and not being distracted by things that will not last, by fantasies and by false messiahs. When we meet him we shall be aware of our unworthiness and developing such an awareness is a feature of the life of faith.
I once had the privilege of briefly meeting Her Majesty the Queen. I remembered that, at the age of six, making red, white and blue decorations for her coronation. I had followed the events of her life ever since then and so I already knew her when I finally met her face to face. She looked at me thoughtfully and kindly and I wanted to be polite and respectful. During my life of faith I have slowly been getting to know the Lord and one day I shall meet him face to face. One of the ways that this meeting will differ from that with Her Majesty is that he will already know me and will have known me since before I was born.
The importance of grown-up thinking I am writing this blog on the Feast of Christ the King. The second reading (Colossians 1:15-20) emphasises that Jesus is King – the first-born of all creation whilst in the Gospel (Luke 23:35-43) he is a man being crucified with two thieves. One of them recognises his own unworthiness in the presence of someone special yet feels he can say ‘remember me when you come into your kingdom’ and Jesus replies ‘today you will be with me in paradise’. The fact that Jesus is both King and someone with whom we have an intimate relationship is so truly awesome that we shall never fully understand it until we meet him face to face’.
I tried to explain this to someone on my Holy Communion round, although it might just as much have been someone in the RCIA group. She replied thoughtfully that it was quite a difficult idea. Do we have to understand it? No, I don’t think so. If it’s getting complicated we only have to go back to Jesus the carpenter of Nazareth – for he is ‘the image of the unseen God’ (Colossians 1:15). What a wonderful thing for God to reveal himself through a person. You don’t need to be able to read or talk theology to understand a person. The ‘good thief’ was able understand what Jesus was about. In fact, Jesus likened himself to a ‘good shepherd’. Sheep cannot read and neither can they talk theology but they know a good shepherd when they see one and all they have to do is trust him. The potentially fatal mistake a sheep can make is to wander off to where it can’t hear the Good Shepherd’s voice. The Shepherd will leave the others and come and look for it – but a roaring lion might have found the sheep first.
So does it matter, trying to understand some of the huge ideas in scripture? If it’s starting to confuse and is leading catechumens away from the shepherd it is better to avoid it. But the understanding that is pitched at just the right level can deepen faith, release praise and promote faith sharing. St Paul exhorts ‘Brothers, do not remain children in your thinking; infants in wickedness – agreed, but in your thinking grown-ups’ (1 Corinthians 14:20).
But my real life is the faith I have in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. Galatians 2: 19-20