Editor’s note: This is Part II in a three part series on Advent. Read Part I here.
(LifeSiteNews) — Even aside from its centrality to the season of Advent, does the “Parousia” – Christ’s second coming in glory – have the place in the popular Catholic imagination that it deserves?
We profess our faith in it every time we sing the Creed, and the general idea – that God will reward and punish our deeds – is considered be so crucial that theologians say it must be explicitly believed for a man to be saved.
It appears throughout Holy Scripture – and even when the Prophets most clearly speak of Christ’s first coming, they add details pertaining to the second. It appears throughout the New Testament, with Our Lord breaking his customary silence in the Passion to affirm his future advent in glory.
According to the twentieth-century theologian Fr. Johannes Pinsk, “the coming of the Lord” is “the central idea of every Christian feast.” He claims that the early Christians marked every commemoration of Christ’s historical life with their gaze turned towards the future:
Christian piety of the first centuries feels like a chosen army, sure of its triumph and of its future victory… The Christians of the first centuries looked forward to the coming of the Lord as a future reality… Ancient piety aspired to the second coming of Christ, to his definitive triumph.1
Pinsk claims that the whole of Advent is filled with this aspiration for the coming of Our Lord in glory, and that it is this that drives the growing impatience of the Season – manifested in the repeated calls for Christ to come, and the reassurances that he will not delay.
The Apocalypse and the presence of Christ
This is very much the atmosphere of the book of the Apocalypse, in which Christ is constantly near and present to the Church, as the coming judge of the world.”2 In his book on the Apocalypse, Féret writes:
He ‘walked’ in the midst of the Churches, ready to dispossess this one of its primacy or to intervene ‘quickly’ in the affairs of another, threatening the woman Jezabel and those who are led astray by her with punishment, or lingering behind the door, ready to sup with any who will have him.3
Féret summarizes this in words recalling the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius:
We can see how comforting such an idea must have been. When a fighting regiment knows that its commanding officer is there, sharing the smoke and the heat of battle, that awareness has a far more tonic effect than a message of encouragement conveyed to the fighters by a general seated in glory in some distant palace headquarters.4
This confidence of the proximity of Our Lord appears throughout the Advent liturgy. For example, on Gaudete Sunday the Introit and Epistle tell us:
Rejoice in the Lord always: again, I say, rejoice.
But why? Because:
The Lord is nigh: be nothing solicitous.
Do we have this sense today, in our ecclesiastical and civil crises?
Féret suggests that many have lost this sense of the presence and closeness of Christ. He suggests that our attitude towards the risen Christ is too similar to our attitude towards the faithful departed. We truly believe that he is risen, just as we know that that they all continue to exist, but “[w]e are not at all excited by [the Resurrection], and we scarcely ever think of dwelling upon its effect on the evolution of world events.”5
We might pray to Christ for help, but when it comes to the catastrophes in the world today, we treat him as if he were like those souls in Purgatory:
There is no communication between the two worlds; they cannot return to help us in our affairs, whatever deeds they have left behind them, or whatever prayers they may offer to God on our behalf. Our dead are no longer personalities playing a part in history. Life goes on without them.6
But this way of considering matters has consequences on the paradigm with which we view the world – and Our Lord’s position in it. Féret compares this attitude to the women at the tomb – “obstinately looking for ‘the living among the dead’ though he has gone before us into Galilee”:
By this we reduce the Resurrection to a mere episode of some vague tomorrow, which may perhaps inaugurate a personal triumph for the Crucified one, but has nothing whatever to do with the external progress here on earth of the work he came to do.7
We could ask the question: Why would Our Lord intervene in the world if we don’t really think that he will, and don’t ask him to do so?
By contrast, the antidote to this malaise (according to Féret and others) is a conscious devotion to the current presence of Christ, and a longing for his return in glory.
This is the very spirit offered to us in Advent’s liturgical texts.
We do not need to concede anything about these comparisons between us and “the early Christians” in order to acknowledge there may be something useful for us here.
It is just a fact that very few of us are devoted to, inspired by or hoping for the imminent return of Christ in glory. With a few exceptions, it is not the sort of image that appears painted in our churches. It is not a theme that features strongly in popular Catholic discourse, or in sermons, or common exercises of devotion.
There are indeed many who are very interested in the “end times” – but the attitude seems to be more one of grim fascination (“We’re all doomed!”) than of joyful hope. Few of us want the Parousia – perhaps because we are aware of the terrible sufferings and persecution that will immediately precede it.
And yet, as we have already mentioned, Christ’s return is on our lips every Sunday and every time we recite the Creed, and it appears throughout the Old Testament, the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. It is central to the Faith. Pinsk goes as far as to say:
For the Church, the coming of the Lord is the ‘Gospel’ par excellence; it is, in fact, ‘the good news’. Indeed, the Church sorely misses the Lord; that is why, during Advent, the advent of Christ is spoken to us with such transports.
All this is why St. Gregory the Great echoes the Gospel of the First Sunday of Advent – in a sermon which is read, in part, on that day – that the coming end of the world should prompt us to lift up our heads, and rejoice:
Thus, those who love God are invited to rejoice with great joy because of the end of the world, because they will soon meet the one they love, while passing what they did not like. May the faithful who desires to see God be careful not to cry over the misfortunes that afflict the world, since he knows that these very misfortunes bring him to an end. […]
He who does not rejoice at the approach of the end of the world affirms himself as the friend of the world, and is thereby convinced of being the enemy of God. […] For crying over the destruction of the world is fitting for those who have planted the roots of their hearts in the love of the world, who do not seek the future life, and do not even suspect its existence.8
This is a real meaning of Advent. It need not be the only meaning of Advent, or destroy other paradigms of understanding this holy season. As I previously mentioned, this paradigm does not call for us to abolish nativity scenes or general festivity.
But it may nonetheless be especially profitable for us today, and help us to grow in love and awe at our divine Savior.
Moreover: it might help us make sense of the terrible, catastrophic situation in which we find ourselves today – with a Church in unprecedented crisis, and a rapidly encroaching tyranny at our doors.
It might even provide an answer which can sustain us, with genuine hope and bravery, amidst so much chaos.
This will be the subject of the next part.
1This essay draws on the observations of Fr Johannes Pinsk (1891-1957). Fr Pinsk was involved with the twentieth century liturgical movement in ways that many readers would consider regrettable. However, his 1933 essay ‘The Coming of the Lord in the Liturgy’ has a wealth of interesting information about Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, which I would like to share. It also contains some things which we, as traditional Catholics, would either reject or consider suspect. My purpose here is to present what is good, along with some comments, and so to help us pass a profitable Advent. Johannes Pinsk, ‘The Coming of the Lord in the Liturgy’, from Liturgische Zeitschrift Jahrgang, 1932-33 and reproduced in the Bulletin Paroissial Liturgique n. 1, 1938. This version is a DeepL translation from the Spanish version reproduced in El Que Vuelve, Vortice, Buenos Aires 2018, an available at https://engloriaymajestad.blogspot.com/2016/09/la-venida-del-senor-en-la-liturgia-por.html. Due to the difficulty of locating a physical copy of this text and giving correct page numbers, I will not clutter the text with references to it.
2H.M. Féret OP, The Apocalypse of St John, trans. Elizabethe Corathiel, Blackfriars Publications, London, 1958, p 59
8St Gregory the Great, ‘Homily I’, taken from the Gospel of Luke Commentary, dated November 12 590, pronounced before the people in the basilica of St Peter the Apostle. Available at https://sites.google.com/site/aquinasstudybible/home/luke-commentary/gregory-the-great-homily-1