The World is Ending: The Hidden Message of Advent

Crispin van den Broeck, The Last Judgment (1560)
Crispin van den Broeck, The Last Judgment (1560)

The world is ending this weekend. We’re right at the end of the 2017 Liturgical Year (or at the beginning of the 2018 Liturgical Year, depending on where you are, and when you’re reading this): the First Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new year. If you have been paying attention to the Gospel readings at Mass (both on Sundays and during the week), you might have noticed that things have been getting pretty ominous. Last Sunday was Christ the King Sunday, and it was all about how Christ would come again to judge the living and the dead (Matthew 25:31-46). This morning, the Gospel was from Luke 21:34-36,

Jesus said to his disciples: “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. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”

And this apocalyptic tenor to the Gospel doesn’t stop with the start of the new year. This Sunday’s Gospel is from Mark 13:33-37,

Jesus said to his disciples: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!'”

So in about a week’s time, we’ve got Gospel readings from three different Gospels all with the same message: Christ could come again at any moment, and so we had better get ready.

This is, if you will, the hidden meaning of the season of Advent. The name of the season comes from the Latin word Adventus which means “arrival,” and the season is divided into two parts. The last two weeks of Advent are focused on Christmas, and Christ’s entrance into the world through His Incarnation and birth. There were some who were patiently awaiting His arrival, some who dreaded His arrival, and some who were totally caught off guard by His arrival. For the shepherds, the news of the birth of Christ was “good news of a great joy” (Luke 2:10); Herod, on the other hand, “was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3).

So it will be when Christ comes again, and that’s why the Advent season is (quite brilliantly) divided in half. While the second half prepares us for Christmas, Christ’s first coming, the first half of the Advent season is preparation for Christ’s final return at the end of the world. In this way, the Church shows us that the end of the liturgical year and the beginning are really not so different: both are about expectant waiting for Christ, and preparing ourselves to welcome Him.

It’s extremely telling that we use the phrase “it’s not the end of the world,” after if the end of the world is the worst situation imaginable. That’s not how the early Christians approached it, and it’s not how we’re called to approach things. The Nicene Creed ends “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.” St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 16:22, says “If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed. Marana tha.” The NAB footnotes explain the meaning of this Aramaic phrase:

Marana tha: an Aramaic expression, probably used in the early Christian liturgy. As understood here (“O Lord, come!”), it is a prayer for the early return of Christ. If the Aramaic words are divided differently (Maran atha, “Our Lord has come”), it becomes a credal declaration. The former interpretation is supported by what appears to be a Greek equivalent of this acclamation in Rev 22:20 “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

So we should be like St. Paul, and like St. John the Revelator, looking forward to Christ’s return, and longing for it. But are we? Or to put it differently, if Christ were to return tomorrow (or much likelier, if you were to die and stand before Him tomorrow), would you be ready? Would your surprise meeting with Christ be the best or worst news of your life?

3 Comments

  1. I think it is very reasonable to hope that the Lord NOT COME IMMEDIATELY to end this present world, even though it indeed will happen one day. And that is because to wish Jesus to come again and the ‘last day’ to be here, is pretty much equal to wishing to die and leave this world right now, and I don’t know of any person who really desires this unless they are severely depressed or suicidal. There are many reasons for wanting to stay in this world for a time ( all the while longing and working so that the world, here, be converted), and even Jesus had this natural desire. He said on the Mt. of Olives:

    “Father, if thou wilt, REMOVE this chalice from me: but yet NOT MY WILL, but thine be done.” (Luke 22:42)”; and,

    “Again the second time, he went and prayed, saying: My Father, if this chalice may not pass away, but I MUST drink it, thy will be done. (Matt. 26:42)

    So the natural desire of Jesus, ‘HIS WILL’, was not to die at that time; but knowing that it was the will of His Father that He should do so, He sought to conform Himself to His Fathers will and not His own. And this, I think, is the proper attitude also for us here below. And, Jesus says something similar, when He taught: “I pray not that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from evil.” [John 17:15]

    Now, if there were no other people living in the world that didn’t already know and rejoice in the Gospel of Christ, then I think it might be possible to say : “Please Lord end this miserable world so that we might all be with you forever”. But, this is not the case, and even Jesus says that we must be concerned about our fellow neighbors spiritual welfare, and moreover, that we have a LABOR TO DO here below on that account. He says:

    “The harvest indeed is great, but the labourers are few. PRAY YE therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he send labourers into his harvest. ” (Luke 10:2)

    So, Christ is NOT teaching that we should wish the ‘end of the world’ to come, but that the ‘harvest’ BE COMPLETELY GATHERED by an army of disciples and harvesters. But, unfortunately, due to the free will and laziness of the harvesters (laborers), wherein they don’t want to bother to labor for the Lord, very much of the potential harvest will go to waste and left in the field to rot. What else can be the outcome of a ‘great harvest’ but very few harvesters??

    So, I personally think every Christian should be busy about ‘fishing for men’ as Christ clearly desires, ‘working at the harvest’… and all the while, of course, not neglecting their own souls but always being prepared and waiting for Christ’s return. And this is because the time for ‘the end of the world’ will come ONLY when God the Father desires it, even as Christ said that He did not know the time, ‘but only the Father knows the day and the hour’. So, until then, Christians should be more concerned at fishing and harvesting ( …even as Joe is doing with this excellent blog).

  2. Good time to discuss this topic. van den Broeck’s The Last Judgment appropriately depicts the tension between souls wanting to be with Jesus versus some bound by sin who want more time to get their life in better order. Notice the large woman in the foreground just right of center who reaches up to her right (our left) to the ‘good’ side of the picture; she is held down by at least two demons.

    Only today my friend and I pondered whether the Church teaches Advent as a time of penance or a time of expectant joy. Apparently it is both. This season reflects that pull to the past, celebrating Jesus’ birth. This season also reflects the push to the future of His Second Coming. And yet the present is where we are, having the tension ‘in between.’

    The saints eagerly awaited death –wasn’t it Therese of Lisieux who ardently looked forward to her feast day? St. Paul to the Phillipians 1:21-23: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain…having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better.”

    1. Margo,

      I believe you get it exactly right when you say: “This season reflects that pull to the past, celebrating Jesus’ birth. This season also reflects the push to the future of His Second Coming. And yet the present is where we are, having the tension ‘in between.” That’s a very good summation.

      The first part, the celebration of Jesus’ birth and life, includes trying to fulfill and live out everything Jesus taught us to do in His preaching and teaching while He lived. That is, to fulfill the Gospel message He gave to us. And if we do this, we have sought to be ‘good shepherds’ in our lives, seeking out the ‘lost sheep’ and bringing them back to the fold; and ‘Good Samaritans’, by binding and caring for the wounds of our fellow neighbor when we find him on the way; and, also, in joining Christ in His stated mission, when He said: I am come to cast fire on the earth; and what will I, but that it be kindled?” This is undoubtably the fire of His Most Sacred Heart flaming with love for every soul. So, the faithful disciple of Christ tries to kindle this fire on Earth in any way he can, and as often as He can, in his life on Earth.

      But the Advent part, looking to the end times and the second coming, reminds me of the men described by Jonathan Swift in “Gulliver’s Travels”, those who have one eye pointing to the sky and the other to the Earth. This is the tension that you describe. And this is to say, a Christian should always keep fulfilling the word of Christ as taught in the Gospel, by keeping one eye on God and the other on his neighbor, even when preparing for the end and desiring to be with Christ, even as St. Theresa did.

      And the benefit of always putting into practice the Lord’s teachings in our lives (with one eye to the Earth), is that if the Christian does this, he/she will be less inclined to be like the Lot’s wife was when the time of destruction arrived. This is to say, the time for working and serving Christ in this world will be over, (like St. Paul’s famous race) and the moment of Christ’s arrival as, ‘the Bridegroom’, will begin. In fulfilling Christ’s word while they had the chance, such Christians as ‘the Wise Virgins’ , will be free to turn away from this world in all good conscience, turn away from the concerns of the world… when the sound of the Bridegroom knocks in the middle of the night.

      But those who neglected to follow the Lord’s teachings by failing putting them into practice in their daily lives, in that surprising moment when the Master returns, they will remember that they needed to be charitable to their neighbor, and to serve Christ in the flesh here below. And so, they will look to the world and try to catch up and make amends for their negligence and all the opportunities that were given to them, but passed by unheeded. And so, they will be like the ‘foolish virgins’ seeking to find sufficient oil for keeping their lamps burning. And, the ones who have followed the Bridegrooms admonitions during the time of their lives, will not even listen to the plea’s of these at that time, to share with them…since the time of sharing has gone by, even as Jesus said on the cross “It is finished”.

      So, I think, this is the ‘tension in-between’ that you aptly describe above.

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