3rd Sunday of Advent
Be patient, brothers and sisters,
until the coming of the Lord. James 5:7
The challenge to the faith of the chosen people caused by their centuries of waiting, waiting, waiting for the coming of the Lord, the coming of their God, who “comes to save” his people, is surely something we Christians should be able to appreciate after our own centuries of waiting for the return of our Lord in glory. Our faith also is challenged by this long waiting, for more than twenty centuries, for the second great coming of the Lord. As with God’s first chosen people, so our faith can be strained, perhaps even fearfully wearied, so that we may no longer really find ourselves waiting, that is, waiting in the sense of longing for, anticipating the great day when Christ will return in glory.
The season of advent, and the season of Christmas as well, is intended to rekindle that powerful longing that we should carry in our hearts for the Lord to fulfill His promise, and come again to deliver us from evil, all the horrible evils of this world including the evil of our own sins. Christmas recalls with great joy the first coming of Christ our light, the promised one who came to us not in His glory but in the humility and weakness of a child born into the poverty of this world.
Advent, on the other hand, recalls the long period of waiting, often in anxiety, for that blessed event to occur. The prophet Isaiah portrays the great longing of Israel for the Messiah who would come with recompense for those who were waiting faithfully, to save them from this world and its evils: Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
with divine recompense
he comes to save you.
This prophecy brought Israel both joy and hope.
And yet, when He at last came, He came in a most unexpected way, not in glory, as John the Baptist expected, crushing the enemies of Israel and bringing earthly glory to His people, but in weakness and humility. And sadly, after so long a wait, the people of God were largely unprepared for His coming because it happened in this quite unexpected way.
So true is this that John the Baptist, while in prison, sends envoys to Jesus, perhaps to reassure his disciples, if not himself, that Jesus is indeed the One sent by God as the promised Messiah. John has heard of his great miracles, the signs that fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that the Messiah would open the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf, and make the crippled leap like stags and he knows that Jesus has even raised the dead to life! While Jesus seemed to be more than fulfilling that aspect of the Messianic prophecy, when was the glorious triumph over his enemies going to happen along with the terrible judgement finally separating the good and the bad?
Now we too await His coming, but a coming that definitely will not be in weakness. He will surely come this second time in glory to judge the living and the dead, but, once again, not to establish an earthly kingdom, but His Heavenly Kingdom that will never end. And we Christians too can grow weary and become unprepared for his second coming just as the people who lived at the time of his first coming. That is why James, in today’s second reading, warns us to cultivate the virtue of patience: “Be patient my brothers until the coming of the Lord.” Steady your hearts, he says, for the judge stands at the very gate. Only this time he will come not in his former weakness and humility, but in all the glory of God’s only Son. But we will be delivered by Him only if we are truly longing for and ready for his coming.
Week after week during Advent, and year after year of Advents, we hear this exhortation, to wake up, to make ready the way of the Lord. And still, so many Christians are basically unprepared, unconcerned with anything except the material side of Christmas, indeed, the material side of life itself. And so when the Lord comes in glory to judge mankind second time, many will be totally unprepared for his coming.
Indeed, people will be unprepared because, unlike John, they will be expecting not a judgement by the glorious king, but a weak and non-judgmental Christ who will simply overlook their sins and their lack of interest in Him or His coming. People will be horrified at the second coming as Israel was scandalized at His first coming. For He will surely come in the glory of God, but he will come, as we profess in the Creed “to judge the living and the dead” with divine justice, and fulfill every last word of the prophets regarding this divine retribution. His mercy will extend only to those who have longed for his coming and have cooperated with His grace to be truly prepared to meet Him.
Advent and Christmas then are gifts from our God, gifts extended through His Church, to awaken us from our slumber, a kind of spiritual alarm, stirring us from the laziness or indifference that can arise from the long waiting for his coming. Now is the time to prepare, now is the season of God’s grace and mercy, the time of salvation.
Now, the very best preparation during this holy season is to recall exactly why He came in the first place and why he will come again. He came because the whole human race was lost, locked in darkness and sin and with no way out. He came to give man a second chance for glory. So each and every one of us needs to recall each and every day of advent, and each and every day of our lives, that we were lost without him, that our destiny was an everlasting punishment, and there was no way out by ourselves.
Then we need to remind ourselves how He lowered Himself in His infinite mercy to become a bit of the dust that we are by nature. How can we ever hope to understand this kind of love and the greatness of this mercy if we fail to understand our desperation? Those are the two doctrinal keys for our longing for His coming and for our being prepared when He does come: our total desperation without Him, and the infinity of His love, mercy and humility in coming among us, suffering for us, dying for us, and rising for us.
These should be the central elements of our meditation during this holy season of Advent – our desperate need, and, His infinite generosity. Who can meditate on these things without arousing a profound sense of gratitude and longing. We find this same pattern in the holy Mass, where we begin by confessing our sins and desperate need for forgiveness, and only then do we move on to the mystery of our redemption in His holy sacrifice. That is the fundamental pattern of our lives as Christians.
The rose candle on our Advent wreath is a lovely symbol of anticipated joy in this season of promise and of the even grater joy that the Coming Christmas season should bring us all. But in truth, we will experience that great joy only to the degree that we first acknowledge our sins, our great need for mercy, and then place these two liturgical seasons carefully within the perspective of the second coming of Christ to judge us and establish who will belong to His final Kingdom. Only then will we rightly prepare ourselves to go out and greet him with joy when He comes again, and only then will we come to know that greatest joy when at last His promises are totally fulfilled in us.