Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom.
Collect for the First Sunday of Advent
In recent years Americans appear fascinated by the end times and coming of the apocalypse. Is the election of President Trump (or Obama, take your pick), the proliferation of social media or the decline of the use of the Oxford comma a sure sign that the end is near? There are plenty of people ready to tell you that we are just days or weeks away from the rapture or the coming of the anti-Christ or the pre-or post-millenarian tribulation, despite the fact that even Jesus himself told his disciples that only the Father knows the day or the hour when the Son of Man will return in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Given a lot of the sheer craziness surrounding the end of the world, we might be tempted to give little time or thought to the second coming of Christ. Yet the season of Advent is all about the eschaton, that is to say, the fulfillment of the divine plan at the end of time and the parousia, the Second Coming of Christ.
The readings and prayers for the final weeks of Ordinary Time and the first three weeks of Advent are intended to re-orient us each year to this eschatological horizon, that is, to the end of time, when “all will be all” in God (1 Cor 15:28). Then, during the last week of Advent and throughout the Christmas season, we are invited to meditate on the mystery of the Incarnation and rejoice in the birth of Jesus and his first coming among us as man.
The name of this season of Advent is derived from the Latin root words ad venire to come or to arrive. Pondering the past, present and future coming of Christ, Advent suggests three themes related to his present and future coming for reflection, prayer and action.
• The coming of Christ at the end of world
• The coming of Christ at the end of our lives
• The coming of Christ in the person of our neighbor, especially the poor and those in need.
One the earliest Christian prayers is this Aramaic phrase, “Maran atha” (1 Cor 16:22), which can be translated either as “O Lord, come!” or “The Lord has come!” The latter translation is a declaration of faith in the Lordship of Jesus, whose first coming has already occurred. The former is a prayer of hope, imploring the Lord to come soon.
In contemporary parlance, apocalypse has come to mean a cataclysmic event, resulting in the collapse of civilization, the destruction of the human race, the end of the world. So why would we as Christians pray for the apocalypse, for the end of the world? To see why, we need to first recover the original meaning of the word apocalypse as used in sacred scripture, which means to reveal or uncover. Which is to say, at the end, with the coming of the Lord, the saving plan of God for our salvation and redemption will be fully and definitively realized and brought to fulfillment.
On that day, the glory of the Lord will be revealed to the nations when God vindicates the poor and those accounted as nothing in this world.
Symbolized in the scriptures by images of temporal destruction (the sun, moon and stars falling from the heavens, trials and tribulations), our idols and illusions about ourselves will come crashing down and our true allegiances will be uncovered and revealed. The fearful images we encounter in the apocalyptic books of sacred scripture are intended to underscore the seriousness of what is at stake in choosing either to accept the abundant and merciful love of God or to remain mired within the narrow confines of misplaced self-love. What is truly frightening is not the encounter with Jesus at the end – he is the One, after all, who came, not to condemn us but to save us. He loves us with infinite mercy and compassion. Rather, what should and must frighten us is the possibility that through our own folly, pride, obsessions and sinfulness, we might succumb to the temptation to reject the abundant gift of God’s love and choose self-love instead. For while nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, we can definitively choose to reject his love.
Traditionally, Advent has about it somewhat of a penitential character. I think in part this is because Advent is a time during which we prepare for the particular judgement each of us will undergo when our life draws to a close in death. Encountering Christ face-to-face, looking upon us with love, will we be prepared to return that love? During Advent, we pray that God will grant us the time to change our hearts and our lives so as to be ready to meet the Lord.
The change of heart that Jesus calls us to is exemplified in the gospel reading for the Solemnity of Christ the King, the final Sunday of the year before this Advent began. We heard proclaimed the apocalyptic parable from Matthew’s gospel of the Last Judgement (Mt.25:31-46). In this parable, Jesus revealed to both the righteous and the evildoers the criterion for judgement – whether or not they have acted with love toward the neighbor, who, in Christ’s teaching is the equivalent of himself.
The gospel presupposes that both the righteous and the unrighteous already know the greatest commandment – to love God with one’s whole heart, strength and mind, and to love the neighbor as one’s self. But what is revealed to them is that every encounter with the neighbor, including the poor, including even the enemy, is an encounter with Jesus himself.
Which is to say, once the Word of God becomes incarnate in the person of Jesus, to truly love God with one’s whole heart, strength and mind can no longer be separated from love of the neighbor, who incarnates Jesus for us. Thus, for each of us, there is a present coming of Christ which we must attend to. Our self-love must give way to love of God, made real in the sincere love and service of our neighbor.
What will be uncovered on the last day will be this: have we chosen to love and obey God through our love of the neighbor or have we failed to love God and obey him by failing to love our neighbor? Let us resolve then, while given the grace and time to do so, “to run forth to meet Christ with righteous deeds at his coming” and so be worthy to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Come, Lord Jesus!