Circular Letter: Advent 2006
Hastening the Lord’s Coming
A philosopher once said that in the face of the situation into which mankind has blundered, only a god could save us. According to him, our one possibility was “to prepare the way for the readiness to receive the appearance of the god.” This statement was not made by a pre-Christian pagan, but rather, by Martin Heidegger, commenting shortly before his death in 1976.
Notwithstanding his being considered by some as a “post-Christian pagan,” he provides genuine insight into an important truth of our Christian faith. It is a truth which should stand in the forefront of the mind of every Catholic during the season of Advent. “Readiness to receive the appearance of our God” should certainly characterize the outlook of the faithful at any season of the year. But in a particular way, the Church teaches us that looking forward to the Second Coming of Christ is the hallmark of our present liturgical season:
The Advent Season, the preparation for this commemoration [of Christmas], has a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ’s first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation. (Gen-eral Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar, 39)
As we commemorate the first coming of Christ and reflect upon the lack of human preparedness to receive Him at His birth, we are thus prompted to an ever greater vigilance, lest we be similarly unsuspecting of His Second Coming.
The Need for Vigilance
The theme of watchfulness is predominant throughout the whole of the New Testament. Many parables of Christ have as their lesson: “Therefore, keep vigilant—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch!” (Mk 13:35-37). We need only recall the parables of the unfaithful servants or of the imprudent virgins, who are not ready for the Bridegroom when he comes. St. Paul roused the Christian community in Thessalonica to such vigilance that it was later necessary to write to correct excesses in their interpretation of his exhortations. Likewise, many times in the Apocalypse Christ advises the faithful concerning His im-minent coming: “Behold I come soon!” and the need for vigilance: “See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame” (Rev 16:15).
These passages indicate the fundamental attitude which should be the mark of every faithful Christian: “Watching.” Our acts of faith, hope and charity are alive and active to the extent that faith is expressed in watching, hope in seeking, love in ardently desiring the coming of the Lord.
But for us to have such attitudes toward Christ’s Coming, we must first recognize the fact that He may come at any moment. The suggestion that the Second Coming of Christ in glory may happen this very day, or within the immediate future, may strike us as odd, if not altogether fantastic. But we must ask ourselves: why does it seem strange? Is it because we are convinced that the signs that should precede the Lord’s Coming are not yet fulfilled?
The Signs of His Coming
The consideration of the “signs” which should precede Christ’s Coming brings us back to a further point made in the insightful remark of Heidegger. He recognized that the Coming of Christ will come at a point when there is no other solution for the ills of humanity. His comment sounds like the words of one Roman historian who observed that society had declined to such a point that it could tolerate neither its disease nor its cure.
In this sense, Jesus spoke of wars, catastrophes, cataclysms and cosmic events such as the darkening of the sun, the falling of the stars, and the powers in the heavens being shaken prior to “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. But the nature of these grave disorders need not be understood only in the literal, material sense. In fact, there are indications that the seriousness of the situation will not be evident to many. As St. Paul warns with reference to the Coming of Christ: “When people say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape” (1 Thes 5:3). The point is that our failure to perceive the signs cannot be the basis for assurance that the signs have not been fulfilled.
The frequent exhortations to vigilance found in the New Testament attest that such an assurance is not possible. Jesus speaks about the ignorance as to the day and hour of His Coming: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mk 13:32). On the one hand, this ignorance forbids anyone from stating for certain when exactly the event will take place. But this ignorance equally forbids anyone from denying the possibility of His coming at any particular moment.
Our Secular World View
But it would seem that the strangeness of the thought of Christ’s Coming is not simply the consequence of our being convinced that the prophecies have not yet been fulfilled. More commonly, this strangeness is the result of our perception of reality having been so strongly formed by the spirit of this world, by the secular vision of things. Here we take the word secular to mean an image of a world completely limited to and determined by the objects of sense. The world can so easily strike us with the impression of its permanence and its being a closed physical system, such that the objects of faith are illusory fantasies, having no substance, no relation to the “real” world of our sense experience. It is only with continual effort that we can maintain before us the truth expressed by St. Paul, “The things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:18), so as to form our judgement of these matters correctly.
It is important to note that it would be a serious error to reduce the exhortations to vigilance found in the New Testament to refer simply to our readiness for our own personal death. While it is true that we must be ever prepared for meeting the Divine Judge at the moment of death, the Second Coming of Christ calls for a distinct form of watchfulness and readiness.
Watching and Waiting for the Lord with Longing
In what does this distinct form of watchfulness consist? As a fundamental attitude which should characterize our life of faith, it should have the element of anxious desire. We are all familiar with the sentiment of expectation. When we are waiting for the arrival of a friend long over-due, we look out the window anxiously, as though the frequency of our checking will somehow hasten their arrival. Similarly, when awaiting the arrival of a letter from someone we love, we are drawn to check the mailbox repeatedly in hope that it has come. As we look forward to a longed-for event, we check the calendar every day, crossing off the days that are past, counting the days yet to pass before the affair.
As our hearts can stretch towards the people and the things that we love and long for, so should our heart stretch towards the Lord Who is to come. It is this very sentiment that is expressed in the phrase combined from the letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians (1 Cor 16:22) and the end of the Book of Revelation, which was incorporated into the early Christian Liturgies: “Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20). The Christian Church expressed her eager love singing these words with fervor.
St. Peter warned against the attitude of the infidels who deny the possibility of Christ’s coming:
In the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!’ …But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? (2 Pet 3:3-12)
On the one hand, St. Peter admits that the Lord’s coming may be long delayed. Nevertheless, he admonishes them not only to be vigilant, but even to “hasten the day”. That is to say, he tells them that they should desire it with such eagerness, that they be willing to do everything possible to make that day arrive as soon as possible. The desire to hasten the Lord’s Coming will be the more intense, in proportion to the intensity of our faith, hope and love.
This World is Passing
Beyond this positive longing for the Coming of Christ, there is also a certain negative element which is essential to the attitude of watching: a detachment from this world. That is to say, we must not only believe in Christ, but we must not believe in this world. We must not only hope in Christ, but we must not hope in this world. We must not only love Christ, but we must not set our hearts upon the things of this world. It is in this sense that watching for Christ’s Coming is again distinct from being prepared for death. A man who realizes that he will soon die can often still cultivate strong hopes that his labors will survive him, and that his achievements will live on even after he passes on. In this way, despite the fact that he is aware that he must die, he still fixes his hope in some way upon this world. He desires to live on in the minds of those who continue in this world. He wants to continue to work in those who carry on after him.
But the Coming of Christ will bring all things of this world to an end. All man’s plans and strivings for this world will come to naught in an instant. The most outwardly impressive projects will vanish, leaving only the things that can last the test of fire. It is in this spirit that St. Paul taught the early Christians: “[T]he appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:29-31).
It is true that we must labor “while we have the light of day, for the night will soon be here when no one can work” (John 9:4). But we labor with the recognition that what we accom-plish in the visible world can at any moment pass. We do not work for mere temporal goals, therefore, but to produce fruit that lasts for eternity.
The ardent desire for the Coming of Christ coupled with this sense of detachment from the things of this world is powerfully expressed in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “O that You would rend the heavens and would come down: the mountains would melt away at Your presence. They would melt as at the burning of fire, the waters would burn with fire, that Your name might be made known to Your enemies: that the nations might tremble at Your presence” (Is 64:1-3). It is of little concern to the prophet if the coming of the Lord results in the heavens being torn in pieces and the earth melting like wax and oceans drying up. Let the things of this world pass away, what matters is that the Lord comes soon. St. Peter, in the above mentioned citation, also takes in the fact that we should desire to hasten the day of the Lord notwithstanding the awareness of the dissolution of the creation that will accompany it.
Working with the Holy Angels
How are we to perseveringly stand in readiness? How can we maintain a disposition of watchfulness? Being an expression of the virtues of faith, hope and charity, watchfulness is cultivated in the same way as these virtues: fidelity to the means of grace. Devout reception of the Sacraments, prayer, meditation, mortification, alms-giving, etc., are means of keep-ing alive the desire for Christ. But another source of help is devotion to the holy angels.
Jesus consistently taught that He would send the angels to precede His Coming. This promise implies that the angels are in a special way instrumental in the preparation of mankind for the Coming of Christ. As the Apostles were sent before the Lord to prepare for His visitation of the towns of Judah and Galilee, so the angels are sent to prepare the world to be gathered to the Lord.
Already at His first Coming, His birth in Bethlehem, it is the angels who call men to receive their Lord. Among those who were the first to go out to meet the Lord were the shepherds who kept watch by night. They possessed the readiness to receive the appearance of their God announced to them by the angels. Similarly, we should keep watch in prayer that we may be ready to receive the illumination and inspiration of God’s holy angels “until the morning star arises in our hearts” (2 Pet 1:9). We should make the best of this season of grace, training our minds and stretching our hearts through fervent longing and loving deeds, so that we may have the readiness to receive the appearance of Christ our God when He comes on Christmas day, and one day, in heavenly glory. “Come, Lord Jesus!”
~ Fr. Basil Nortz, ORC
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