Christmas and the Apocalypse
“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. All this is holy and reminds 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 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, ‘Gloria,’ 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’re on a mission. But this penitential phrase, “Benedicamus Domino,” is simply a reminder to us to fine tune our hearts to God. We have to listen for Him. 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 around the corner – not just one day, but twelve days of feasting and celebration. But in more recent years, we’ve often forgotten what Christmas is really about, and especially the role of Advent. What is it that we’re preparing for now?
If you listened to the gospel we’ve just now read, you might have noticed how out of place it sounds. We’re getting ready for Christmas, and yet, 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 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 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.”
What does this mean? St. John Chrysostom explains this metaphorically. The sun and moon, he says, won’t really lose their light. 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 these stars aren’t literal at all. They represent everything in this world that we get excited about; our accomplishments, our feelings of superiority, and essentially, everything we bow down to in our hearts. 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. Advent is the time for us to dig deep into our hearts and to come to terms with what we find. 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.
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.”
So, in the midst of the noise and premature feasting around us, keep the fast and strain your ears through this sweet and short 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.