O Come, O Come Emmanuel
“Jesus said unto his disciples: “There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars, and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea, and the waves roaring: men's hearts failing them for fear…And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
Advent is begun.
Today marks the first day of our pilgrimage to Christmas.
This is a favorite season for most. It’s a time where families gather, the homes are decked with lights, and the world smells of fresh pine, dried oranges, and spiced cider. These are all holy things and exist to remind us daily of the good news, that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem and restored paradise to mankind. But meanwhile, as advent arrives each year, it feels that the world is tugging us in one direction and the Church in an entirely other direction. The celebration has already begun outside, and yet the Church has become quiet and a little sober. Our friends are feasting, and yet we’re told to fast more vigorously. Dinner parties and champagne glasses are all wonderful things, in their right time, but for us at this season, and in every corner where there still remains traditional Christianity, the Church plays a different tune. I want to encourage you, throughout this season of Advent, to strain your ears to hear this tune, and to take it to heart, for it’s very beautiful and ennobling.
What is Advent?
The word ‘Advent’ comes from the Latin word ‘Adventus,’ which means, ‘The coming.’ Advent stems from the same root as Adventure, for this is exactly how we have to understand it. It’s a setting out, a journey, an odyssey. Something is happening. Someone is coming.
The church is decked in purple, a color that symbolizes mourning and repentance. The choir skips over the celebratory song, ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo,’ which, when you’re used to hearing it Sunday after Sunday, has a sobering affect. As we conclude the mass, the priest no longer turns and sings “Ite Missa Est” (Thus is the Mass, go forth) but chants “Benedicamus Domino” (Let us Bless the Lord). The normal phrase is a bold declaration that God is with us and that we must go forth with a mission. But this penitential phrase, “Benedicamus Domino,” is simply a reminder to us to get up and serve God, to Bless Him in our lives and actions. Furthermore, the advent candles are brought out. Today, one candle has been lit, and with each Sunday we will light an additional candle. There’s a steady progression, a journey, as though we’re staying up late at night, lighting candle after candle, waiting for our father to return home. You can feel it in the air. Something is happening. Someone is coming.
Of course, we all know what we’re waiting for. Christmas is just around the corner, and for us, Christmas isn’t just 1 day, but is 12 long days of feasting and celebration. But in more recent years, we’ve often forgotten what Christmas is really about, and especially the whole purpose of Advent. What is it that we’re preparing for now?
If you listened to the gospel that was read today, you might have noticed how out of place it can sound. We’re getting ready for Christmas, and yet, all of our readings are about the Apocalypse. “There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars,” Jesus tells His disciples, “and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea, and the waves roaring: men's hearts failing them for fear…And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
What does the end of the world and the shaking of heaven have to do with Christmas?
The Adventus, the Coming, that we’re preparing for is not just about our Lord’s birth in Bethlehem. It is about that birth long ago, and everything else that the birth foreshadows. Christmas is about the Eternal Coming of Jesus Christ into the midst of our lives; His ‘advent’ before us, today with us, and in the age to come which we must all prepare for now.
Christmas is about the day when Adam and Eve hid in the bushes, and trembled in fear, for they heard their Lord coming. Christmas is about the day long foretold by Isaiah, who warns the Jews: “Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices…When the Lord returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes.” Christmas is about the daily knock on the door of our soul, when Christ asks us gently if we want Him in our lives, or if we’d rather be let alone. Christmas, moreover, is about the final judgment, that grand day that awaits us all, for which Christ urges us: “I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.” (Rev. 3:11).
Today, we read that at the Final Judgment the sun, and moon, and stars will be dimmed and the nations distressed, when they see “the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” This image is very dramatic, and for us who have grown up on apocalyptic films, it’s rather exciting. But on a much deeper level, this passage has a very important message for us during Advent.
The Church Fathers usually interpret this scripture metaphorically. For instance, St. John Chrysostom begins by suggesting that the sun and moon won’t really lose their light, but instead Christ’s appearing will be so bright that everything else in this world will appear dim. He writes, “As swiftly as the moon and stars fade before the rising sun, so before the glorious appearance of Christ, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give her light, and the stars will fall from heaven; stripped of their former splendor.” But then he goes on to say that the moon and stars here aren’t to be taken literally. Instead, they represent everything in this world that we get excited about; all of our great accomplishments, our feelings of superiority, and essentially, the false gods that we bow down to. When Christ returns, we will all see the truth that everything we worshipped here below was always just a false god, unimpressive, and petty, in the awesome light of Jesus Christ.
“And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” Our Lord foretells, “And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads: for your redemption draweth nigh.”
Two things happen at the Coming of Jesus Christ. The first group of men and women see that their whole world is falling to pieces, and they tremble. But the second group sees this shaking of the world and the appearing of the Light of Christ, and they rejoice. What makes the two groups different? The first spent their lives obsessed with matters down here. The second group was never satisfied with this world, and stayed waiting and preparing for the next. When this group sees Christ return, they will recognize Him as their beloved, because they were always detached from things down below.
Christ spoke the truth when He said, ‘Where your treasure is, there is also your heart.” In the end, we will all get the treasure of our hearts, for better or worse. Now is the time for digging deep into our hearts and come to terms with what we find. This is the purpose of Advent. Advent is a spiritual retreat, set aside each year, for us to prepare our hearts so that when Jesus Christ returns we will want Him.
Jacob Michael, a Christian apologist, once had this to say about Advent: “What Christians do (or should be doing), during Advent and leading up to Christmas is a foreshadowing of what they will do during the days of their lives that lead up to the Second Coming; what non-Christians refuse to do during Advent, and put off until after Christmas, is precisely a foreshadowing of what they will experience at the Second Coming. We Christians are to prepare for the Coming of Christ before He actually comes -- and that Coming is symbolized and recalled at Christmas. Non-Christians miss this season of preparation, and then scramble for six days after the 25th to make their resolutions. By then, however, it's too late -- Christmas has come and gone, Our Lord has already made His visitation to the earth.”
Now is the time for preparing.
Advent is the evening when the virgins waited for their bridegrooms. Some kept their lamps burning. Others extinguished them. We are the virgins and Christ is the bridegroom.
Advent is the long day, when the master went out from his household and the good servants waited faithfully to receive him back. Christ tells us today as He told his disciples long ago, “Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning…and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching.”
Advent is that quiet and joyful season, of waiting for our beloved savior. Our king draws near and says to us, “I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.” (Rev. 3:11).
So, in the midst of the noise and premature feasting around us, keep the fast and strain your ears throughout this sweet season to hear the tune of our Church:
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.