The Church has begun the solemn observances of Advent, a time dedicated to heightened prayer, penance, and preparations for the celebrations of the Christmas season.
Consider this time as an opportunity to renew your relationship with Jesus Christ in the Church. Remember, we Christians do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ simply in our minds or in our emotions; we have a relationship with Christ in the Church. The Church bears the life and presence of the Lord Jesus into our lives and into the world, and it does this because of what the Church really and truly is: Christ’s own body in the world.
The reduction of the Church to an institution, a faith-based building and grounds department of an international religious cooperation, is one of the great misperceptions of the Church in our times. The Church has institutions, which are intended not as ends in themselves but as a means to further the mission Christ has given the baptized to transform lives and the world. But none of the institutions are what the Church really and truly is: the living presence of Christ in the world.
This distinction is worth considering during this season of Advent.
The Scriptures the Church proclaims for Advent will invite us to consider the coming of Christ into the world and will propose three ways of understanding how Christ’s coming happens: Christ comes in history, in mystery, and in glory.
The first, Christ comes in history, directs our attention to revelation that God has acted and continues to act in time and in reality. God’s power and presence is not sequestered in heaven and he does not remain aloof and indifferent to his creation. The Scriptures testify that God has intervened in history in extraordinary ways and continues his interventions—the greatest of which is revealed in Christ, where God accepts a human nature and lives a real, human life.
Christ is not for us Christians merely a great man of history, a hero who stands alongside other religious and civic leaders who advanced the cause of civilization. Christ is God, the Lord of all history, who shows the extent of his interest and involvement in our world and in our lives by being born in his creation as a man and living among us as a brother and as a friend. The great solemnity of Christmas, the Christ-Mass, that the Church will celebrate in a few weeks celebrates our first glimpse of God in Christ, the wonder of heaven and earth, as God presents himself to the world in our flesh, as one like us, as a man.
Our first Scripture last week from the Old Testament book of the Prophet Jeremiah is about the coming of Christ in history. The Book of Jeremiah is one of the saddest of the books of the Bible. The once mighty kingdom of David is doomed to destruction, and in the year 587 BC will be utterly destroyed with only a remnant of the Israelites remaining. Jeremiah warns the Israelites that this terrifying turn of events is about to uproot their lives, but his warnings are not heeded. And as the Israelites gaze in horror as everything they know and love is taken from them, the prophet Jeremiah attempts to speak words of consolation, assuring them that God will one day act to set things right and restore what has been lost.
The restoration happens in Christ, for in him God reveals himself to be not only the one, true God, but the one, true king, and he offers to his people and all peoples of the world his kingdom, the renewal and transformation of the world through his presence and power in the lives of those who follow him.
All this happens in history, for God in Christ enters this world, his creation, not as an idea or as a felling or as a myth but as a man. Those who believed in Christ and who followed him saw in Christ God’s intervention in the world, an intervention to set right what had gone so wrong in 587 BC. God in Christ came in history and he comes in history to this very day.
The second coming of Christ is in mystery, and by this is meant that his power and presence comes into our lives through signs, symbols, and sacraments in the Church. Christ coming to us in mystery does not mean that he comes into our lives as a problem for us to solve, but as a revelation that confounds us in all our expectations of who God is and what we think God should do. This is what the apostle Paul is alluding to in the Church’s second reading, an excerpt from his first letter to the Thessalonians.
The apostle Paul testifies that if we are truly responsive to the power and presence of Christ offered to us in the Church, then our lives will change and this transformation will be most evident in how we treat one another. How does this work?
In the sacraments we learn what God loves, and knowing what God loves, we will love what he loves. What God loves is all of us, despite how unlovable we can be—and yet God loves us, even forgives us when that forgiveness is undeserved. The invitation of the sacraments to love what God loves is an invitation to love one another as God in Christ has loved us. Christ is the pattern that God reveals as the way that we should love him, love one another, and engage the world in which we live. The love of God in Christ is not sentimental or romantic, but gritty, raw, and realistic. It is love incarnate in the mess of our flesh and blood, in the midst of our suffering and our pain. It is not love as a feeling, but as an act of will that stands defiant before all the dark powers of sin and the devil. It is a love that risks all, even poverty and death, so that it might be given to the world as a grace, as a gift.
If we permit our spiritual vision to expand from our self-centered narrowness, we will see all this in the Church’s mysteries—in the signs, in the symbols, and most importantly, in the sacraments. And we will then learn from the sacraments to love what God loves, and in doing so, come to appreciate how Christ comes to us right now in mystery.
The third coming of Christ is in glory, and the Lord Jesus himself gives testimony to this revelation in his Gospel.
Christ speaks of his revelation as the “Son of Man,” and by this is meant that he comes into this world to set a creation compromised by the powers of sin, death, and the devil right, and this righting of a world gone wrong will shake the foundations of the world.
This revelation of Christ in glory is anticipated in how so often our encounter with Christ shakes, indeed overturns, the foundations of our own lives, compelling us to a decision, insisting that we change.
The offer of a relationship with Jesus Christ is not an offer of affirmation of our status quo. God in Christ does not affirm us as we are, but offers us a new way of life, a way of life that radically reorients our sense of who we are and what we are supposed to do. A relationship with Jesus Christ is a crucible in which the power of sin and the devil is exorcised from us, cast out; we are set free for mission, a mission that will most often take us where we would not have chosen to go.
In all this, Christ comes to us in his glory.
But we must also remember that the coming of Christ in glory is also where all creation is headed. God in Christ promises his return, and God in Christ keeps his promises. In the past, God in Christ came into this world as a man, being born into this world as one like us. And now he is with us still, in the Church; in mystery and in sacrament, he continues to influence and remake the world. But Christ’s coming in history and mystery anticipates his coming in glory—a real event in space and in time, where he will raise up a fallen world and offer to a world, at its end, a new beginning.
In these days of Advent, let us mark and remember well the coming of Christ: in history, in mystery, and in glory.