This Sunday’s gospel is very apocalyptic. We hear of “signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves” and “men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world” (some translations even say “people will die of fright”!), and we are exhorted to pray “that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man” (Lk. 21:25–26, 36).
Why is this the gospel we get as we enter the Advent season, preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus? Why can’t we have something more uplifting and cheery—more in the spirit of the Christmas season we are looking forward to?
I think there are two main reasons the Church begins Advent with these sorts of readings. The first is that it is a reminder to us that we are not simply preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus and God’s coming among us. Advent is not only about remembering what God has done in the past. It also points us towards the future, when the crucified and risen Son of God will appear in glory and judge us all at the end of time. Sunday’s gospel is meant to be a wake-up call, rousing us to action and spiritual preparation, and reminding us that we must be vigilant, lest we be caught unawares and unready to be judged.
The second reason is closely related. The gospel reminds us who it is who came as a little baby two thousand years ago. The second coming of Christ “with power and great glory” (Lk. 21:27) is described as a terrifying event—at least for those who are not prepared. At Christmas, it is tempting to get caught up in a purely sentimental remembrance of Baby Jesus in the manger, while we eat good food, listen to Christmas carols, and enjoy the company of our family. All this is well and good, but there is a danger of taking the coming of Jesus for granted. The God who came to earth as a tiny infant is the same God whose second coming will make people faint in sheer terror. He is the same God whom Patriarchs and prophets were afraid to approach, thinking the sight of Him would kill them. He is the God who appeared on Mt. Sinai in the midst of a great storm cloud, leaving the Israelites awestruck and fearful. He is the God who was hidden behind the veil of the Temple, approached only once a year by a single priest, who had a rope tied to his ankle in case he fell dead in the sanctuary. He is the God who has power over every created thing and who rules over all of creation, who is so holy that when we die, we cannot enter heaven with the slightest stain of sin on our souls.
It is this God who loved us so deeply that He sent His only-begotten Son into our dirty, sinful world, to willingly take our sins upon Himself and conquer them on the Cross. The same God who struck terror into the hearts of men—and will do so again when Christ comes in glory—became a helpless baby so that He might be close to us and show the tenderness of His love for us, in a way that would speak more clearly to our hardened hearts.
Let’s not forget who it is who it is who comes to us at Christmas, and who will come again at the end of time. Let us prepare our hearts, that we might welcome Him with joy.
Andrew Sheedy – St. Joseph Seminary, Edmonton, Alberta
Fot. Bryan Minear