Advent and the Great Homecoming
If you carry out a quick study of the words "advent" and "adventure" you will find that both ultimately point toward one thing - an arrival.
Every adventure anticipates and ends with an arrival. The trek made by Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem anticipates an arrival. Bilbo's adventure in The Hobbit anticipates an arrival. So too does Scrooge's three-fold adventure with the Ghosts of Christmas in Dickens' A Christmas Carol. We know these stories well; Mary and Joseph expect to arrive in Bethlehem (and, of course, they expect the arrival of Jesus); Bilbo and friends are expecting to arrive at the treasure-loaded Misty Mountains. But beyond these destinations lies something that is even more final: the arrival home. Like Scrooge - Bilbo, Mary and Joseph all anticipate an arrival home in the end. Indeed their adventures truly cease at home's threshold, where rest awaits. Whether it's to return or go looking for it, home is the ultimate destination in every adventure; and the site of new beginnings.
The centerpiece of Advent is the Nativity, which is both remembered and reflected upon. But Advent is more than just a time of remembrance; for it also points towards the return of our Lord. Referring to the Sacred Scriptures, St. Augustine taught that the New Testament is concealed in the Old, and the Old revealed in the New. The Old Testament points towards an event - the coming of the Messiah - who will fulfill the Old Testament (or Covenant) with a new, universal one. Thus the Old Testament points towards the New Testament; it might also be said that the First Coming of Christ points towards the Final Coming at the end of the age.
This proclamation of the anticipated arrival of Our Lord is as literal as it is poetic: Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ really will come again in glory. He will come to take us Home.
Christ's second coming will set the stage for "the Final Judgement" when Christ, just and merciful, will judge each and every one of us according to what we have done (Matt 25:31-46; Rom 2:6-7). Those who are judged to be right with God (even by a thread) will move along to their final reward: the Beatific Vision, or full possession of God. Perfect sanctity is our final state, and perfect union with God our final end.
Many of us will be saved "as through fire", requiring final purification (or Purgatory) before entering heaven since "nothing unclean" shall enter it (Rev 21:27). Whether this purification is in the blink of an eye or over a duration has not been revealed to us for certain. What we do know, however, is that the purification will involve suffering of some kind (see 1 Cor 3:10-15) and will inevitably be followed by a glorious entry into heaven.
Eventually we will be reunited with our resurrected bodies (see 1 Cor 15); and it is in this state that we will enjoy "life after life after death", as theologian N.T. Wright puts it. Remember, Jesus' bodily resurrection was only the first of many. We forget that too easily, don't we? Indeed we are destined for a bodily resurrection of our own. St. Paul writes:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. (1 Cor 15:23)
What will our new bodies be like? A close study of God's Word has given theologians some insight into what we can expect. According to Dr. Taylor Marshall and other experts in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, our resurrected bodies will no longer suffer physical sickness or death. Glorified and spiritualized, our new bodies will be able to pass through doors and walls, travel long distances in the blink of an eye, and will be absolutely beautiful, free of all defect (For more on what St. Thomas Aquinas says about this in his Summa, go here).
Perfection awaits us, and yet here and now it evades us - though not fully. Our intuition tells us we are made for greatness and anything less will not fulfill us. When we act virtuously in our lives and grow in sanctity we get the sense we are moving in the right direction. But when we take a sinful step back, our conscience - that 'aboriginal Vicar of Christ' as Blessed John Henry Newman called it - awakens and burdens us with a mysterious feeling of loss. When we sin it's as though we can feel that precious sanctifying grace leaking from sin-shaped perforations in our soul. And it hurts.
Nonetheless, despite our constant failures it is a fact that we are made, and destined, for perfection; and although we never seem to find it in this life, that expectation that we ought to find it continues to move us forward in the adventure of life.
It seems that we desire that which we have not yet found and cannot picture; yet a mysterious kind of hope indwells our deepest being. We want to be satisfied absolutely and everlastingly.
As C.S. Lewis wrote:
"Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." (Mere Christianity, Bk. III, chap. 10, "Hope")
Indeed God desires to give us everything. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (457-460) tells us that the Word became flesh for four reasons: so that we would know God loves us, to be our model of holiness, to save us, and to make us "partakers of divine nature" (see 2 Pet 1:4); then we will truly and fully know what it means to be a child of God. But the process of being "divinized" is not something that begins after death. For you and I, beginning at baptism, the process has begun. Do you know you're a child of God now? You might have heard it. But do you know it? St. John writes:
Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)
Thanks to the victory of Christ, you and I are now able to be the children of a king whose kingdom is not of this world. The king is Our Father; we are royalty; and the kingdom - our Home - awaits our arrival. We need to remember this - for in this is our family pride as Christian brothers and sisters. Not all pride is bad; for some pride is holy pride, and we ought to have it. St. Josemaria recalls:
'Father', said that big fellow, a good student at the university (I wonder what has become of him), 'I was thinking of what you told me — that I'm a son of God! — and I found myself walking along the street, head up, chin out, and a proud feeling inside... a son of God!' With sure conscience I advised him to encourage that 'pride.' (The Way, 274)
Thus Advent reminds us of who we are and where we are headed. It directs our minds and hearts to a real event in the past: the birth of Jesus Christ.
Advent also re-establishes us in the present by reminding us that Emmanuel, our elder Brother who came in a manger hundreds of years ago, is also "God with us" today - above all in the Eucharist.
Finally, Advent points us towards a future event - Christ's second coming - which points to yet another coming that awaits beyond: our final and consummate Homecoming in heaven. Indeed for we who are but pilgrim travelers in this life, the end of the age is only the beginning.