Advent, wrote Benedictine Sister Maria Boulding in “The Coming of God” (The Printery House, $14.95), “is not a poetic make-believe, or a nostalgic historical pageant, or even an exercise in remembering our roots, although this might have value. The coming of God in Christ still continues and will be consummated in a coming and a gift beyond the stretch of our hope. We are an Advent people.” We are people who await the glorious coming of Christ, even while we are grounded in the firm fact of his first coming 2,000 years ago. There is not just one advent of Christ, as St. Cyril of Jerusalem pointed out in the fourth-century, “but a second also, far more glorious than the former.” The first advent revealed God’s merciful and loving patience, “but the latter brings with it the crown of a divine kingdom.”
Advent is both a reminder of and the realization of the covenantal promises of God, especially in the dusk and shadows of this passing world. The prophet Jeremiah lived in a time — from about 640 to 587 B.C. — when the shadow of exile and slavery was eclipsing the people of Judah. Jeremiah was the son of a temple priest; he received his call to be a prophet in his early teens. His task was daunting: The people and their leaders had failed to worship God and obey his Law, and Jeremiah was unrelenting in his call to reform, purity, holiness and renewed trust in God. Even as Judah continued to head toward exile at the hands of the Babylonians, he proclaimed God’s faithfulness: “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah.” A “just shoot” would arise, and this would bring justice to his people.
Jesus Christ is that shoot, the son of David who established a new and everlasting covenant. Having come first as a babe in a manger, amid the shadows and dusk of Bethlehem, the Son of Man will come again “with power and great glory.” But what of us who live in between these two great advents? The beginnings to an answer to that important question can be found in the word “advent” itself. An advent is a coming; it literally means “to come to.” The New Testament Greek word for “coming” is parousia, which means “presence” or “coming to a place.” The Vulgate translation of the phrase “the coming of our Lord Jesus” (1 Thes 3:13) is rendered in adventu Domini.
So, we acknowledge a past coming — the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity — and we also anticipate his future coming in public glory, as King of kings. These are the bookends of salvation history, and we live in the books and pages between. Within those living pages is the Church and the sacraments. Especially important is the holy sacrament of the Eucharist, as it is Christ coming to us.
We orient our hearts to the Nativity through the liturgy, the Scriptures and the sacramental life of the Church. Jesus came into the world blameless and in holiness so that we, as St. Paul writes, can be transformed and presented “blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones,” that is, with the saints.
Advent is a call to sainthood. It is the challenge presented to the young Jeremiah: Accept, live and proclaim the goodness of God. The birth of Jesus surprised many, and the shadows are all around. We, however, are the Advent people, living in the light of Christ’s coming and presence.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.