This past Sunday’s Gospel was from Luke 21, about the end of the world. If you think about it, that’s a pretty strange way to celebrate the First Sunday of Advent, the first day of the new liturgical year. We’re at the beginning of Christianity, if you will. We normally think of Christianity as starting at Christmas, but it’s before that, when Christ dwells within the womb of the Virgin Mary, that He first enters our world. And it’s this season, this preparation for Christmas, that it’s so important to preserve. And yet here we are, talking about the Second Coming. Why?
I’d propose that it’s all about encountering Christ, and making room for Him.
I mentioned recently two Advent images that I find particularly helpful for understanding what this season is all about:
- The first is of the pregnant Virgin Mary making her way towards Bethlehem with St. Joseph. She grew and expanded because of Christ within her as she journeyed towards Christmas. We should do the same thing. Let Christ grow within your heart and soul.
- The second is of Christ the Guest. Perhaps you will be entertaining guests this Christmas. If so, you know what has to happen beforehand. You look around to see what needs cleaning, and you prepare for your guests. Why? Because you love them. This applies to us in the spiritual life. In the Book of Revelation (Rev. 3:20), Christ says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” He’s announced that He’s coming over, and this is our time to clean up our spiritual house.
But where do we encounter Christ, and how do we respond?
In talking about encountering Christ, I’m reminded of the Twilight and Hunger Games faux-“trilogies.” Both of those were three-part series, in which the third book was turned into two separate movies. With Christ, we’ve got a “trilogy” like that. There’s an easy way to remember it, too: we encounter Christ in history, Mystery, and majesty:
- Christ’s arrival in history is what Christmas celebrates.
- Christ’s arrival in Mystery refers to the Sacraments, which the early Christians called the Mysteries. We encounter Jesus in a unique way, of course, in the Eucharist.
- What about Christ’s arrival in majesty? Here’s why I put “trilogy” in heavy quotations. Because we can think about this in two ways. We encounter Christ at the end of the world, at His Second Coming, when He comes to us. But that’s not how most people meet Him. Most of us go to Him at our death. But whether we’re talking about the particular or the general Judgment, we will soon see Christ in glory, just as saw Him in the past in history, and in the present in the Sacraments.
So how do we prepare for these encounters with Christ? There are three possibilities, each of which are laid out in last Sunday’s Gospel:
- Some will be in terror: “People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Luke 21:26)
- Some will be in apathy: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.” (Lk. 21:34)
- Some will be in joy: “But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” (Lk. 21:28)
And we’ve seen these three reactions at every encounter with Christ. On that first Christmas, the wicked King Herod was terrified of the baby Jesus, and sought to kill Him. The innkeeper was apathetic, and couldn’t make room for Him (Lk. 2:7). And the shepherds, the wise men, and the Holy Family were joyful: the angel announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds told them, “I bring you tidings of great joy” (Lk. 2:10).
What about encountering Christ in the Sacraments? Do you let terror prevent you from meeting Him in Confession? Or do you approach him in the Eucharist apathetically, going through the motions while your mind and heart are somewhere else?The approach He calls us to is to prepare a little room in our hearts, and to receive this great gift of God Himself in a spirit of joy.
Finally, when you think about your own death, or when you think about the Last Judgment, how does your heart respond? In the Nicene Creed, we pray, “We look forward to the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Is that true? Are we joyously awaiting Christ’s return and the end of this world? Or does the end of the world terrify us, because we know we aren’t living as we should? Or do we simply ignore the fact that we won’t always be here, and that the world won’t always be here? Have we set our hopes and aspirations in this world, so that we don’t want to acknowledge that it will fade?
This Advent, Christ the Guest comes to us. Wake up from your slumber, clean up your spiritual house, and lift up your heads and your hearts, for your Redemption is at hand!