First Sunday of Advent - The First and Second Comings of Christ
I’m sure I’m not the only person who, as a child, got rather excited about the prospect of Christmas. Indeed, perhaps to a rather lesser degree, I imagine some of you still do – and of course, by giving us this season of Advent, I think it’s even fair to say that the Church encourages us to look forward to Christmas. And just as part of the anticipation of the more secular side of Christmas involves various kinds of preparations – be it writing Christmas cards, decorating the tree, or whatever it is – so the Church, in the liturgy of this season of Advent, prepares us to celebrate the Birth of Christ by setting before us, especially in the Scripture readings, a vision of how the Incarnation which we celebrate at Christmas fits into the great story of God’s plan of salvation which is gradually revealed in the history of Israel his chosen people.
Or at least that’s what we find on all the other Sundays of Advent: and it makes sense, after all. On this First Sunday, though, things are a bit different. If the Old Testament reading from Jeremiah could be applied to the Birth of Christ, the second reading from First Thessalonians and the Gospel make it clear that the focus is not on Christ’s coming as a baby in Bethlehem but on some still future event when ‘they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory’ (Lk 21: 27). How does that help us prepare for Christmas?
Well, I suppose in one sense you could think of it as a kind of “sneak preview”: by setting before us Jesus’ own words about his coming in glory to judge mankind, the Church gives an extra dimension to our reflection on the meaning of Christmas. As we contemplate that image of Christ coming in glory, not only does it remind us, at the simplest level, quite who this baby is whose birth we are to celebrate, but it also illustrates for us the humility with which God chose to reveal his love for us – coming not in a cloud with power and great glory, but as a babe lying in a manger.
But I think there’s another aspect to this whole question of anticipation and preparation which today’s readings remind us of, and that’s the fact that, as we start thinking about Christmas – the birth of our Saviour and Redeemer – we mustn’t forget what Christ’s coming as a baby in Bethlehem means for us in our lives today. And just as remembering what we have been told of Christ’s second coming can help us better understand his first, so the way in which God chose to bring about our salvation – by assuming a human nature like yours and mine – has something to tell us about his coming at the end of time to bring to its visible conclusion the work of redemption which he brought about through the Incarnation.
If, then, Advent is a special period of time for preparing to celebrate the Birth of Christ at Christmas, does that mean it’s also – in the light of today’s focus on the future coming of Christ – a time when we should particularly prepare for that tremendous event? Well, that’s not quite the message that comes through from today’s readings. If the season of Advent illustrates the need to prepare for the coming of Christ, then both St Paul in the second reading and Our Lord in the Gospel make it clear that our preparation to meet the Lord is nothing more and nothing less than the living out of our ordinary lives. Saint Paul tells the Thessalonians, ‘as you learned from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, ... do so more and more’ (1 Thess 4: 1).
And so, as we enter upon this season of preparation for the joyful celebration of Christ’s coming as a baby in Bethlehem, let us remember too that as we live out our ordinary day-to-day lives as Christians, we are also preparing for the joyful completion of that work of our salvation which, in becoming human, Christ has wrought for us.