By Fr Joel Wallace
In the commercially saturated environment that ushers in the season of Christmas in the popular experience of most Australians today, the significance of Christ’s coming among us not infrequently seems lost to memory.
For a great many Christian Australians, however, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day contains a poignant memory of the Christ-child born at Bethlehem, an intimate and peaceful moment which may be a source of unity for the gathering family.
What is appreciated by the relative few is the importance of the season of Advent leading to Christmas, which is actually of beginning of the cycle of seasons in the liturgical year.
This concerns the full, Catholic Christian significance of Christ’s appearance in the world, God’s full manifestation upon the stage of human history and its affairs, which offers dramatic new meaning to our human behaviour and relationships, with God and with Christ as He is encountered in, perhaps, the child in the womb of the troubled and uncertain woman lacking support and the security of the truth; the lonely elderly couple on the corner or the 84-year-old woman dying of dementia in the nursing home; the grubby man in the wheelchair down the street; the migrant family struggling to put food on the table; the young indigenous man in a vicious cycle of incarceration; or the remnants of a Filipino family I will never know who are struggling to rebuild a life after losing a spouse and child, together with all earthly possessions, in a devastating tropical typhoon.
The dramatic tension that must be maintained in Christian acting is lost without the Church’s full memory of what is contained in the meaning of Advent.
The word “Advent” comes from the Latin “adventus”, which means “coming”.
Who is coming?
Christ has come in humility and poverty as a child at Bethlehem; He comes to us in Holy Communion; He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. So the Christian tradition transmits God’s word concerning two principal comings: one in humility and the obedience of One who has “come to serve” and to give His life “as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45); the other in glory and glorious Kingship, “to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:1-8; CCC, 678-79).
In between these two comings is reference to a mysterious, sacramental coming – Holy Communion – in which, according to the Liturgy of Corpus Christi, we look back to the life of Christ on earth, we experience grace in the present, and we anticipate the promised future glory. In the precise words of the liturgy, written by St Thomas Aquinas: “The memory of Christ’s passion is recalled, the mind is filled with grace and the pledge of future glory is given to us” (Magnificat antiphon for Vespers II).
If the first coming was, though foreseen in prophecy, mysteriously silent and unperceptible, “like rain on fleece”, to borrow a metaphor from the early eastern fathers, then the second coming will be accompanied, “with power and great glory” (CCC, 671). In the word of St Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem from AD 313 to 386: “At the first coming he was wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger. At his second coming he will be clothed in light […]. In the first coming he endured the cross, despising the shame; in the second coming he will be in glory, escorted by an army of angels”.
We look then beyond the first coming and await the second. At the first coming we said: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. At the second we shall say it again; we shall go out with the angels to meet the Lord and cry out in adoration: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. As St Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) pointed out, those who receive the gift offered in the first coming need have no fear of the second coming. For, in the words of St John the Evangelist, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
The first Advent Preface in the Sacramentary likewise expresses the same in a doctrinal formula that dates back to antiquity: “For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh, and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago, and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, that, when he comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest, we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope”.
The New Testament and the early Christians had a strong sense of the imminent nature of this second coming, which lent urgency to Christian acting. The Catechism explains that the Second Coming, though imminent, is “delayed” as an opportunity for repentance (CCC, 673-74; cf. also Matthew 24:44; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12).
The appearance of the crib in western artistic expression, the origin of which has been attributed to the celebration of a midnight Mass in a cave of St Francis, in the final year of his life, together with the people of the nearby Italian village of Greccio, offered to the internal and external senses an intimate and affective encounter with the event of Christ. The Christmas scene cannot but move the heart to the values which lie at the centre of true Christian experience.
However, it is interesting to note that, from the outset, the liturgy of Advent points our attention firmly in the direction also of Christ’s second coming, to quote from the Collect (Opening Prayer) of the Mass of the First Sunday of Advent: “Grant you 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”. Only as Advent progresses does it focus increasingly on the Nativity of Christ.
The momentous importance of the Coming of Christ in Christian consciousness is able to be observed in the many graphic and dramatic depictions of the Last Judgement in Christian art, which seek precisely to highlight the dramatic nature of Christian acting: our behaviour toward others, particularly others in need, is behaviour toward Christ.
For at the Last Judgement, we shall hear: “So long as you did it/failed to do it to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it/failed to do it to me” (Matthew 25:31-46). This establishes the tension of true Christian hope concerning the possession of the good which is now present in mystery but not fully realised – as yet unfullfilled; an expectation for something good which is coming but is not here yet, something which is not difficult for the childlike mind and heart to grasp but which is altogether too real for an immature adult effectivity to accept.
Once upon a time, these dynamics were an intrinsic part of Christian architecture. As theology developed in the early centuries, Christian churches were built, whereever possible, facing the rising sun. Whereas Jewish liturgy is orientated toward Jerusalem and Islamic liturgy is orientated toward Mecca, Christian liturgy has always been directed toward the East, symbolising the expectation of the worshipping community of the second coming of Christ in Glory and in Judgement, as is professed in the Creed each Sunday.
But although Christ is coming again in His personal glory, He is not here yet and the journey of life is long and sometimes wearisome. To nourish and sustain us for the journey, whose end lies beyond the visible horizon, Christ left the Church a sacrament – indeed, the greatest of all the sacraments – which not only signifies and brings about a spiritual grace and reality but actually contains what it signifies, namely: the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. This is the bread of life, heavenly manna (cleverly and mythopoetically portrayed by the Lembas, the Elven bread of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings), which provided the nourishment necessary for the long journey of the fellowship, and most especially of Frodo and Sam.
St Bernard, restorer of Western monasticism and founder of the new Cistercian community at Clairvaux, once gave a sermon defending the truth of this “middle coming”, which, he said, is “like a road that leads from the first to the last” and is described by him as being “hidden”, since in this way He is perceptible only with the eyes of faith. The middle coming is “in spirit and power”. “At the first, Christ was our redemption; at the last, he will become manifest as our life; but in this middle way he is our rest and our consolation” (in a way that mysteriously anticipates our heavenly, sabbath rest).
This Advent, as we remember the first coming and prepare ourselves for the second, we must allow the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist to transform our desires and affections, so that “just as we have been shaped in the earthly image, so we will [indeed] be shaped into the heavenly image”.
Fr Joel Wallace, formerly of Brisbane, is a priest in Wagga Wagga diocese, NSW.