The First Week of Advent: The Three Comings of Christ
Advent means “coming” and, simply put, Advent is the season when we prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas.
You learn an awful lot about our faith when you teach religion to children. I recall two incidents that happened to me when I was a parish priest where kids taught me something about Advent.
The first incident happened when I was visiting a class of fourth graders during the Season of Advent. I asked them, “Can any of you help me understand Advent better?”
A little girl, named Judy, raised her hand and said, “Well, Father, sure. At this time of the year, in the weeks before Christmas, I always see my mom and dad cleaning and decorating the house, cooking and baking good stuff, all to get ready for the company that’s going to come visit us at Christmastime.”
“So Advent,” Judy went on, “is the time when we get our hearts ready for the greatest Christmas gift of all — namely, Jesus.”
Now I don’t think that’s a bad definition at all of Advent, do you?
The second incident happened when I was teaching grade school at the parishes where I was assigned at the time. One day, I was telling them — sixth graders this time — about Advent as the time that we prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas. “But, Father Tim,” a young fellow said, “Jesus already came that first Christmas, in Bethlehem, in the stable. So how can we get ready for His coming now? He already came!”
You know, that’s not a bad question either. I’d like to try my best to answer that question in this meditation by talking to you about the three comings of Christ at Christmas — the triple “Advents” of Our Lord.
Christ Will Come Again
We believe that Christ comes in three ways.
Yes, He has come already at Bethlehem on that first Christmas. This is the first coming of Our Lord, the one we’re most familiar with and celebrate every Christmas.
He also comes to us now, every day, in such mysterious ways, as in prayer, grace, word, and sacrament. These are other ways that Our Lord comes to us. The word for the celebration of the Lord’s birth, “Christmas” — literally, “Christ’s Mass” — hints at that coming as well.
Then there is yet another coming. Christ will come at the end of time, as judge of the living and the dead.
So there are three comings of Jesus. Christ did come in the past, Christ does come right now, and Christ will come in the future. If you don’t mind me saying it in a more poetic way, Our Lord comes to us in history, mystery, and majesty. He came in history as the Holy Infant of Bethlehem. He comes to us now in mystery — in word, sacrament, grace, and mercy. He will come in majesty at the end of the world as judge of the living and the dead. Christ comes in history, mystery, and majesty.
This is the threefold coming of Christ that we contemplate during this blessed Season of Advent. Let’s reflect on each of these comings of Christ.
His Coming in History
Our Lord Jesus Christ came in history. This is, of course, the coming that drove the dreams of the faithful people of Israel, who had waited so eagerly and so long for the coming of the Messiah. What we try to do as the Church in Advent, in a small way, is to consolidate those centuries of waiting into four short weeks. And we’re reminded — guess what? — that God takes His sweet old time in fulfilling His promises.
God may have promised a Savior in the Garden of Eden. You bet He did. But He was slow in following through on that sacred promise. So that’s why we hear words such as “yearning,” “waiting,” “hoping,” “watching,” “longing,” “looking,” and “preparing” throughout this holy season. These words all become part of our Advent vocabulary at the sacred liturgy. But all that yearning, waiting, hoping, watching, longing, looking, and preparing — was it ever worth it when He finally did come, for as St. John the Evangelist records: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). There is His coming in history.
Now, granted, there’s really not all that much we can do to prepare for that first coming of Christ — His coming in history — because as a matter of fact, it has already taken place. But we can, during this Season of Advent, assume the posture of the expectant people of Israel and admit that we have a very real need for a Savior.
Did you get that?
We sure do need a Savior!
Advent is an excellent time to prepare, to renew our faith that the baby whose birth we hail at Christmas is indeed the Savior of the World, the long-awaited Messiah — the One who can save us! Now, it might sound easy to make the admission that we need a Savior, but in reality it’s tough because most of us are sort of proud and feel rather self-sufficient, independent — in other words, we feel we’re able to take care of ourselves. We’re not beholden to anybody. We hardly need a Savior.
Yet if we are really honest with ourselves, we admit that there are certain things in our life that we just can’t fix. I need help. I happen to need a Savior — and there is good news! We happen to have the best Savior ever, who was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in history, on that first Christmas Day.
What we actually mean by Christ coming in history is that at a specific time and place, God became Man and entered the human drama. This is called the Incarnation — that is, Our Lord’s coming in history. Advent can be a great time to recollect our utter dependence and need for God made Man, who has broken into the history of the world, to save us.
His Coming in Majesty
That was His coming in history. Let’s jump ahead to the third coming of Christ, His coming in majesty.
I used to bring Holy Communion to a wonderful woman in the parish who was housebound because of frail health and advanced age. Her name was Rosemary. On one Friday when I gave her Holy Communion, she made her thanksgiving afterward, and for a short while we chatted, as I like to do when making my Communion calls.
Father,” she said, “some pests came to the door earlier this week, thumping their Bibles, and they said to me: ‘Listen, ma’am, you better be ready because Christ is going to return soon! Christ is going to come back as judge. You’d better be ready and you better be saved.’ ”
I asked Rosemary, “Well, what did you say to those fellows at the door?”
“I just shushed them away,” she replied. “I said, ‘I’m a Catholic. I don’t believe any of that stuff.’ ” Uh-oh! It was time for a little catechism lesson for my friend Rosemary.
I said, “Rosemary, of course we believe that the Lord is going to come again at the end of time. Don’t we say at every Mass, in the memorial acclamation, ‘Christ had died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again’? Don’t we say every Sunday as we profess our faith in the creed, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’ ”?
“Remember,” I said, “right after the Our Father at Mass, that the priest says ‘as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ,’ and that the priest prays in the preface right before the Sanctus at the liturgies of Advent, ‘Now we watch for the day … when Christ our Lord will come again in His glory.’ ”
I did have to admit to Rosemary that, unlike some other Christian believers, we Catholics quit, a long time ago, trying to calculate just when Christ will come again — but we sure do believe that He will.
Christ will come again in glory — that is an essential part of our faith. That’s His coming in majesty. And you know what? Advent is a great time to reflect on that, to remember it, and to prepare for it.
Everything here in life, as beautiful and as wonderful as it is, is only a hint of what awaits us when Christ comes in majesty at the end of time. Nothing is permanent here, and we look forward to the day when Christ will come and usher in His everlasting reign.
Sub specie aeternitatis! I don’t know if you ever heard that. It’s an old classical Latin phrase to say that we view everything “under the aspect of eternity.” It is a way of looking at what I’m doing right now and asking:
- Is this going to help me get to heaven, or is this going to hurt my chances?
- Is this going to assist my salvation, or is this going to hurt it?
- How will this appear on the day when Christ returns in majesty to be the judge of the living and the dead?
Then we make our choices based on what is going to have the best “eternal” consequence for us.
Beginning to look at our lives sub specie aeternitatis during Advent, as a way of preparing for the Final Coming of Christ, is an excellent practice for the spiritual life — one that, hopefully, we’ll continue the rest of the year.
Keep in mind how different that coming of Christ in majesty at the end of the world is going to be different from His first coming in history when He arrived as a helpless baby. When He comes in majesty, He’s going to come as the Omnipotent Judge. When He came in history, He was acknowledged only by Mary, Joseph, some shepherds, and the Magi. When He comes in majesty, all creation will bow down in homage. When He came in history, the angels announced peace on earth. When He comes in majesty, those same angels will divide all creatures for eternal reckoning.
So there are two of the three comings of Christ — He came in history and He will come in majesty. Now let’s reflect on the coming of Christ in mystery. This is the coming that’s most pertinent to us, because it comes between His coming in history and His coming in majesty.
His Coming in Mystery
Let me share with you an incident from my life that maybe will help us appreciate this coming of Christ in mystery. I really love — I confess — I really love getting Christmas cards. I enjoy sending them. During the Season of Advent, I spend a lot of time doing it. It just provides what I think is a providential opportunity to keep in touch with cherished friends, and I sure look forward to getting them.
Well, a couple of years ago I got a Christmas card with a letter inside that really moved me. I’ve kept it to this day, and I usually reread it every Advent. It was from a young fellow that I had really gotten to know well in one of the parishes where I had been assigned. He was at that time in his early years of college, and he used to often come by to visit me in the rectory. I was so impressed with his thirst for religion, with his hunger for the faith, with his desire to just find the Lord and discover what the Lord was asking him to do. He was a man on a real religious odyssey.
I left the parish, was reassigned to another place, and lost contact with him. So some years later, was I ever happy when I got this Christmas card from him, because it allowed me to rekindle our friendship.
In the letter inside his Christmas card to me he wrote:
Dear Fr. Tim,
I know it’s been years since I’ve caught up with you, but let me tell you what’s happened. You knew me well and you knew how I was always on this religious quest. Not too long after you left the parish I went out to California. I heard there was a Carthusian monastery there, one of the strictest orders of monks, and I thought, “I’m going to go there because that is really going to quench my thirst for religion, faith, and for God.”
Well, I spent a couple of months there and it didn’t work. They were sure helpful, but it didn’t work. The Carthusians recommended that maybe I ought to go with the Jesuits and make a 30-day retreat. So I did that. That helped, but it really didn’t quench my thirst. I didn’t think so, anyway.
Then I got into intense spiritual direction; it helped a little but I was still restless. Then I started to dabble in Eastern mystical religions; I thought this was the be all and end all, and that this was going to satisfy my religious hunger. I got so involved that I ended up actually going to Tibet and spending some time at a shrine, with other people who were into Eastern mystical religions, as an attempt to find and discover God’s will. But after a while that didn’t seem to help either. So then what I did was, I went back to California.
Father, I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that then I really got into promiscuity, drugs, and alcohol. It was just all a mess. So finally I came to my senses and I hitchhiked home. Was I ever so scared when I walked up the sidewalk, wondering, you know, I hadn’t seen Mom and Dad for years. I hadn’t written them. They didn’t know where I was. I knocked on the door. Dad comes to the door. He looks at me. He says my name. He starts crying. He gives me a big hug. Mom runs out from the kitchen. She sees me. She starts crying. She gives me a big hug. My sister — I didn’t even know she was married — she’s there with my little nephew that I didn’t even know I had. I’m so happy to be home.
We go sit at the table. Mom has made a great meal, probably the best I’ve eaten in two or three years. We’re sitting there talking, conversing. I’m at home. I’m feeling at peace.
After supper I walked down the block to the parish church where I used to meet you — remember, Father? I kneel down in church and I’m starting to pray and I look up and I see the sanctuary lamp and I know that Our Lord is present in the tabernacle. I hear the door open in the back and I look and it’s Monsignor, the pastor that I grew up with. He greets me. I say to him, “Monsignor, would you mind hearing my confession?”
I go to confession, I make a thanksgiving, and then it dawns on me while I’m saying my prayers there in the parish church: “Lord, I’ve been searching all over the world for You, and You’ve been here the whole time. I’ve been looking for You in every exotic, faraway place in the whole world, and here You are, right at home. You’ve been here all the time, Lord, coming to me, and I didn’t recognize You.”
Now, what I propose to you is that — for this young man, my friend — that was the coming of Christ in mystery. That day — back home in his home parish, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament after confessing his sins to the pastor — was Christmas Day for him! Christ was reborn in his heart.
You know that we believe that Christ comes to us daily. Jesus is reborn in our lives every single day in a myriad of ways if we but recognize Him with the eyes of faith.
You also know the great tragedy of that first Christmas. The Messiah’s birth went largely unnoticed. Nobody recognized Him. The world missed Him. The world passed Him by. The world ignored Him, so much so that He was actually born in a manger, in a stable. You know what? That’s not just a tragedy in history. That tragedy continues now, because Christ comes to us in mystery every day and we usually miss Him!
One of the reasons for this is that Christ comes to us in a very soft, gentle, unassuming, and everyday kind of way. He comes in a prayer whispered or a smile exchanged. He comes in bread and wine changed into His very Body and Blood at Mass. He comes in His Word in the Scripture. He comes in the cry of a baby and the countless other helpless individuals who cry out for help. He comes in the meal shared or in a tear dried. He comes in worn rosary beads and in those sacred words of absolution. He comes in forgiveness exchanged and a second chance given. He comes in water poured in baptism or vows exchanged in marriage. He comes in an imperfect Church in a struggling world.
Christ comes now in mystery!
They missed Him at Bethlehem. They ignored Him at Nazareth. They misunderstood and chased Him away in Galilee. They put Him to death in Jerusalem — and we do, too. We do the same today as we miss His coming in mystery. Remember that chant of the angels to the shepherds that first Christmas in Bethlehem. The angels sang out, “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
Well, my dear friends in Christ, today and every day is born a Savior, and He is Christ the Lord. It’s almost become a cliché that we say, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great if Christmas could continue all year?” Well, it does — because every moment, every day, Christ can be reborn in our hearts, as we recognize His coming in mystery.
Today — now — is born a Savior, for you, as Christ comes in mystery! Advent is the time to watch for His coming, and to recognize Him with faith. The problem’s not that Christ is not coming. The challenge is that we don’t recognize Him because we’ve been desensitized to His arrival, to His Advent, to His coming in our lives. Yet Christ comes in mystery day in and day out. Advent is an opportunity to re-sensitize our faith so that we’re able to sense His coming in the very plain, ordinary ways of life and in the mysteries of our faith.
Christ’s Threefold Coming
So there you have Our Lord’s threefold coming. The Lord came to us in history, as the Holy Infant of Bethlehem. He comes to us now in mystery, and He will come at the end of time in majesty.
During this first week of the Advent season, think about the three comings of Christ.
- Is your faith such that you feel you need to renew the Lord’s historical coming, to be renewed in the reality of His Incarnation and what that means to you? Then spend this season preparing for the coming of Christ in history, thinking about the reality that you need a Savior and that God has answered His sacred promise.
- Perhaps you have not been living your life sub specie aeternitatis, “under the aspect of eternity,” with a focus on how your actions will have repercussions for all eternity, and that you need to prepare for the coming of Christ in majesty. Plan to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation with a firm commitment to reform your life and to live “under the aspect of eternity,” with your eyes focused on the coming of Christ in majesty.
- Have you stopped finding Christ in the present? Seek Him out. Spend time in Eucharistic adoration, attending daily Mass, doing acts of charity, and expect to experience His coming in mystery.
You’re ready now to use Advent to think about the triple coming of Christ in history, mystery, and majesty.
Come, Lord Jesus!
There is a beautiful traditional prayer for the Season of Advent. It is a prayer that is found in the New Testament and in an ancient document of the early Church called the Didache. It is a simple prayer, but one that can be prayed anytime:
“Come, Lord Jesus!”
Repeat this prayer often during this Season of Advent and you will recognize with the eyes of faith that, in praying it sincerely, Our Lord has already answered it, will answer it, and will answer it again.
“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).
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