Advent and the Second Coming

Homily for the First Sunday of Advent. Jer 33:14-16; Ps 24; 1 Thes 3:12-4:2; Lk 21:25-28.34-36

Today we celebrate the First Sunday of Advent, the four week period culminating in the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas. This season of Advent, however, divides into two parts. The first part of Advent, up to the 16th December, does not, in fact, look back to the First Coming of Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, but looks forward to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Hence the Gospel today is about the end of the world, with "signs in the sun and moon and stars", "nations in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves", "men dying of fear" and then, finally, the coming of the Son of Man to bring evil to judgment and to reward the righteous. Now while stories about the end of the world are surprisingly popular in books and films, what Jesus Christ teaches us about the end of the world is not often remembered today. While we have, for example, Christmas cards to wish people a 'Happy Christmas', we do not, to the best of my knowledge, have greetings cards to wish people a 'Happy Judgment'. So in today's homily, I would like to examine briefly how Jesus tells us to live in the light of his Second Coming.

Now when examining the Second Coming and its implications, it is important to anticipate an objection. If the end of the world is at some indeterminate time in the future, a time that is unknown to anyone here and now, how can the Second Coming have any practical effect on our lives? How is it possible to plan and prepare if we have no idea when this final crisis will take place? Well, there are at least two answers to this question. First, while it is true that the end of the world may yet be remote from this present time, what we do know is that the timescale that we have available to prepare for the Second Coming is very short, limited to the span of our present lives. From the moment of our departure from this life, we cease to be able to repent of sin and to be fruitful for the Kingdom of God; no sacraments can be received after death. So our condition at the Last Judgment, for each and every person in this church today, will be determined, not in the remote future, but over the next few decades at most - whether Christ comes again in our lifetimes or in ten thousand years' time. The second way in which the Second Coming affects our lives here and now is that Christians in every age experience prefigurements of the final crisis of the world. When the Emperor Nero condemned Christians in Rome as the enemies of mankind and had them burnt to death in his pleasure gardens in about 66 AD, those Christians experienced a foretaste of the end times. For many Christians, the destruction of the eight hundred monasteries of England in the sixteenth century would have been experienced as a foretaste of the end times. The Armenians and many others who suffered genocide in the twentieth century, such as St Maximilian Kolbe and the multitudes who died in Auschwitz-Birkenau, might also be said to have experienced a foretaste of the end times. As for ourselves, when we see a growing, somewhat irrational hatred of Christianity in societies that are the fruits of Christian culture, together with the growing acceptability of behaviour that would have been recognized as monstrous in the recent past, we, too, may be said to experience a foretaste of the end times. Recognising such challenges for what they are is important, since we are less likely to be shaken by them and, as Dante says, "The arrow we see coming is half spent" (Paradiso XVII, 27). In other words, being forewarned about the condition of the world in its final crisis - persecution, cataclysm and final salvation - can also help us to stand firm in the face of these present, more immediate challenges.

So how, then, does Jesus tell us to prepare for the Second Coming? Well in today's Gospel he tells us to watch ourselves and to be on our guard against our hearts being coarsened by debauchery, drunkenness and the cares of life. But why does he direct his warning to these specific dangers, rather than the many other dangers that might threaten our salvation? I think that the answer is that the proper state of a Christian is to be in a condition of readiness, to be alert to the fact that the end of our lives, for each of us personally, can come at any moment. The problem with debauchery, drunkenness and the cares of life is that these activities stupify the mind and dull a person's sensitivity to eternal realities. Furthermore, besides the new and more obvious contemporary threats such as drugs, much of the modern world seems almost deliberately designed to stop people from thinking too deeply and focusing, in particular, on God or the things of God. There are endless, ingenious ways to be distracted today, so as to stupify the soul and to dull one's sensitivity to sin and grace.

What, then, should we do? I think for all of us as Christians, it is important to re-dedicate a certain amount of time each day for personal prayer. Amid the activity and preparations of Advent, it would also be prudent to take stock and to see if there are ways to get rid of empty distractions and to simplify our lives. Rather paradoxically, those who focus on heaven often enjoy more fruitful lives on earth as well, as the lives of the saints shows. So we should, like them, recognise that we strangers and pilgrims in this passing world, to try to travel light and be prepared, at any time, for the coming of Christ.

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