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?