To remind you on this First Sunday of Advent: this is the season of twofold anticipation. We anticipate the first coming of Christ as the Babe in Bethlehem and we also anticipate Him to come again in full glory with the Angels of light. Advent is a season of watchfulness, a time to remind us not to be caught off guard or unprepared.
This is the theme of this morning’s gospel lesson. We read:
“Watch …—you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming—whether in the evening—or at midnight—or at cockcrow—or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all—Watch!”
The Church reinforces this. From the Catechism we read that: … the present time is the time of the Spirit and of witness, but also a time still marked by ‘distress’ and the trial of evil, which does not spare the Church and ushers in the struggles of the last days. It is a time of waiting and watching” (CCC #672).
Several decades after the Ascension and Jesus had not returned, things got confusing. Many of the first generation of the faithful had “fallen asleep,” a euphemism for dying. An explanation was needed. The Apostle Paul addresses this in the 4th chapter of I Thessalonians, beginning at verse 13.
We would not have you ignorant, brothers and sisters, concerning those who have fallen asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so—through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord— that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command— and with the archangel’s call— and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first— then we who are alive—who are left— shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
Yet even with words like this, there’s a bit of a disconnect with the returning of Christ in Glory. The Church gives no blueprint as to what it will be like. As I pondered this, I turned to an illustration from the book When Christ Comes by Protestant Pastor Max Lucado. It is rather compelling. He writes:
…the light begins to tumble a river of color: spiking crystals of every hue ever seen and millions more never seen. Riding on the flow is an endless fleet of angels. They pass through the curtain one myriad at a time, until they occupy every square inch of the sky. North: South: East: West. Thousands of silvery wings rise and fall in unison, and over the sound of trumpets, you can hear the Cherubim and Seraphim chanting: “Holy. Holy. Holy…”
Between each word is a pause. With each word a profound reverence. You hear your own voice join the chorus. You don’t know why you say the word, but you know you must. [Holy. Holy. Holy.]
Suddenly …all is quiet. The angels turn, you turn, the entire world turns: and there he is. Jesus…the angels bow their heads… And before you is a figure so consuming that you know instantly: you know. Nothing else matters. Forget stock market and school reports, sales meetings, football games, [cancer or Caribbean cruises]. All that mattered, matters no more, for Christ has come…
I’m curious: What’s your response to all this?
Is it apathy? You don’t think it’s relevant and you kind of shrug your shoulders as I’m standing up here talking about it. But if you do think about Christ’s return, what do you think?
Is it denial? Do you think this is fanciful and probably not going to happen, at least not like this? Do you think the return of Christ is more metaphor than concrete event? After all, it hasn’t happened in 2000 years, so it must be some kind of ‘myth.’ The early church needed something to hang on to during the persecution from the Romans and the Jewish authorities. This story was a good way to be able to say to one another: “Just wait. God will get them for what they’ve been doing to us.” But it isn’t really going to happen—and certainly not this way—or so you think.
Is it discomfort? You’ve been told that YOUR sins will be revealed. Yep, all of them. You’ve been told that your dirty little secrets will be made known. God’s exhaustive records will be opened and names will be read. Then there’s all that stuff about the ‘mark of the beast’ and ‘Armageddon,’ and ‘antichrist.’ It’s pretty confusing and the confusion adds greatly to the discomfort. But it is motivation to get to confession.
Is it disappointment? Who would feel disappointment at Christ’s coming? How about a woman who is 8 months pregnant? She wants to hold her new born babe. Or how about a young couple who are engaged? They’ve wanted to be married for such a long time. Think of the young soldier in Afghanistan who has never seen his baby girl. He’d really like to hug and kiss and smile at her.
Is it obsession? Sell everything and join the survivalists in the hills out of Grants Pass.
Is it regret? You’ve just had a row with your spouse and you haven’t had a chance to make up. Or you’ve just unburdened your heart and confessed the sin of theft and have not had a chance to make restitution. Or you just haven’t gotten around to making your confession.
Does the thought of Christ’s actual return throw you into a panic? “It’s too late. It’s too late!” You say in prayer, “Omygod, omygod, omygod, O Lord what am I going to do?”
Is it relief? I hope that is my strongest feeling. I want to feel the words of that old African American Spiritual: “No more sorrow, no more sadness, no more troubles I’ll see. There will be peace in the valley for me.” All cancer is dead. Every heart will be mended, whether from myocardial infarction or a wayward child. Salvation has borne fruit. And Glory will be something we all will behold.
So how do we prepare for the return of Jesus in whatever form or manner? Obviously by living faithfully. We must receive the sacraments of the church, specifically and especially Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist and we must regularly take advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We are to say our prayers and read scripture. It helps greatly to enhance our devotion to our Blessed Mother.
We are to act justly and to reach out selflessly with hands and hearts of compassion.
Remember, God wants the totality of our beings: our lives, our souls and bodies, and especially our hearts. He has this deep abiding, burning love for us. I would remind you that we are called to respond in a mature manner, what I like to call a combination of natural and spiritual maturity.
Natural maturity, using a psychological term, is to be “self-actualized.” We are to think our own thoughts, feel our own feelings, have appropriate boundaries in dealing with others, to be responsible, dependable people. And above all to be compassionate and loving.
Spiritual, maturity ironically takes us in the other direction. We are baptized into Christ. We are in Him and He is in us. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit. The more mature we become in Christ, the more we are aware that we are completely and unequivocally dependent on Him. Every beat of our hearts, every cell that divides in our bodies, and every breath we take is possible only by God’s Grace. We ask: “Have I fully surrendered to Christ?”
And do we think ‘we’ instead of just ‘me.’ Remember the Catholic Church is based on Community. Our sanctity is lived out in relationships.
Advent is a solemn time, a time for reflection and a time to consider our sins. It is also a time of hope, a time of anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s promises to us through Christ.
In closing, I came across this cute story: “A test was given in Emma’s 4th grade class. One of the questions was: “Upon what do hibernating animals subsist during the winter?” Emma thought for a few minutes and then wrote: “All winter long hibernating animals subsist on the hope of a coming spring.”
We Catholics, along with other Christians, subsist on the hope of Christ’s return in glory, no matter what form it may take, and hope does spring eternal.
Oftentimes the simplest answer is the best one.