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Advent and the Four Comings of Christ
December 22, 2014
Can you believe it? Christmas is this week. For most of us, it has come much too quickly. We feel caught off guard and unprepared. We are in panic mode, striving to finish up last minute preparations for family dinners and parties.
Yet, during this season, Holy Mother Church asks us for a different kind of preparedness, a preparedness that does not involve shopping or wrapping gifts—She calls us to a preparedness of heart. Clear away the sin and attachments that crowd out Christ, she challenges us, and make room in your heart for the infant Christ.
While Advent is primarily a time to prepare for the remembrance of Jesus’ birth, it is also a time to look forward to the other appearances of Christ. The great doctor of the Church, St. Bernard of Clairvaux outlined a total of three Advents of Christ for the Christian: His coming in the flesh (past), his coming in our hearts (present), and his coming to judge the world (future). While I don’t presume to improve upon the Mellifluous Doctor, I would like to add one more to that list: The coming of Christ at our death.
As we prepare for Christmas, I thought it appropriate to reflect on these four advents briefly.
The Coming in the Flesh
The Incarnation is the miracle of miracles. There is no more stunning, earth shattering fact than this. The Almighty, the Omnipotent One, the Ancient of Days who gives all things life descends into the form of a tiny, helpless, and very dependent infant.
In the Extraordinary form, whenever the Incarnation is mentioned, whether in the Creed or the Gospel, the priest and the entire congregation drop to their knees in awe-struck adoration, like the shepherds and wise men did so long ago. This coming of Christ is the source of our hope. We are reminded that Christ came not to “condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”
We should never tire of meditating on this Miracle, or on the humility of God it reveals. And in moments of doubt and discouragement, we should remember the great love of God that impelled him to send his only Son, that, “whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
The Coming in Our Hearts
While the Incarnation of the Eternal Word is a mind boggling miracle, there is a sense in which it remains an external reality. It is an objective fact that Christ has come in the flesh whether I personally reject him or worship him.
Christ’s coming is made internal, however, by his advent in our hearts. This coming first occurs at our baptism, when we shake of the chains of slavery of the flesh and the devil and embrace the kingship of Christ. It is renewed each time we receive the fullness of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.
Yes, if we are in a state of grace, Christ dwells in our hearts. He dwells within us. What a thought! We do not have to seek his presence in external temples or remote dwellings. We carry him, and all of heaven, with us wherever we go. This advent, adore Christ dwelling in your soul. Cleanse your heart of the ugliness of sin and make it warm with love so that it will be a worthy dwelling place for the King of kings.
The Coming Again in Judgment
Christ promised his disciples repeatedly that he would come again. There is no doubt that the apostles fully expected this second coming to happen in their lifetimes, and the thought of it inspired their preaching, sustained them suffering, and filled them with hope. It also drove them to constant examination of life, so that they would be found worthy on that day.
While Christ has not yet come again, there is a sense in which we should always have the intense expectation. Jesus assures us that his coming will be like a thief breaking in at night. It will be a total shock, a complete surprise. This fact should inspire in us a watchful spirit, a spirit that is always ready to meet our Maker when he comes to judge the living and the dead.
Scripture and the tradition of the Church assure us that while Christ’s first coming was to bring mercy and salvation to the world, his second coming will be as the dread judge who will separate the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats. Will we be ready to answer for our deeds? Will we greet him with confidence? The second coming of Christ should inspire us with hope, but also remind us that, “every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).
The Coming Again at Our Death
It is true that St. Bernard did not include this coming in his Advent reflection, and yet I believe the fact of our death is worth meditating on during this season. We may not all be alive at Christ’s second coming, but we will all die at some point, some of us sooner than we expect.
This is not to be morbid, it is simply a fact. I was driving on the freeway yesterday when I saw the flashing warning sign, “Drive sober. 480 traffic deaths this year.” 480 souls were going about their lives as usual one moment, and the next they had entered eternity. Life is fragile. The remembrance of our death should not inspire us with fear, but it should rather motivate us to live in such a way that we are ready to meet Christ our Lord with great confidence.
Prepare the way of the Lord
The first coming of Jesus in the flesh was preceded by St. John the Baptist crying out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” As the great feast of the Nativity rapidly approaches, the call of God is the same to us. Repent. Prepare the way of the Lord. Turn from your sins, be converted. Cleanse your hearts and make yourselves ready for his appearing.
The conclusion is this: We should live each day as if it were our last. We must live with holy abandon, pursuing sanctity with all that we are and have. For Christ comes to dwell in our hearts this day, and he will come again for us in the flesh when we least expect it. “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay every one for what he has done” (Revelation 22:12). Are you ready?
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