The holy season of Advent stands at the beginning of a new liturgical year. Its title is derived from the Latin word adventus which translators, like Saint Jerome, used to be the equivalent of the Koine Greek word parousia (Gk. παρουσία). Before the time of Christ, parousia was used to note the visit of a royal dignitary to a provincial locale or city-state. Such a parousia often inaugurated a new era in political alliances. The season derives from two distinct sources: Spain and Gaul, regions of the Roman Empire that were closely aligned with the Eastern Church, this liturgical period took shape and was oriented toward Epiphany, the original feast of Christ’s birth. More so in Gaul, due to the additional influence of Celtic missionaries, greater stress was placed on the eschatological or end time which manifested itself as the necessity of being spiritually ready for the Lord’s coming in judgment by doing penance. In Rome, however, Advent developed later than in the provinces and, so, the Roman focus was on the Incarnation of Christ and as a preparation for the observance of the Lord’s birth. As a result, the season of “Advent has a two-fold character” (UNLYC, n. 39). So, the first two weeks of Advent look forward to the Lord’s return in judgment or the parousia, whereas the last two weeks, known as Late Advent, look backward to Bethlehem and Christ’s first coming or the Nativity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to [the Baptist’s] desire: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’” (CCC, n. 524).
Advent – A Time of Waiting, Conversion, and Hope
After the Fall of Adam, God told Satan that the seed of a woman would one day crush the serpent’s head, which is known as the protoevangelium, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; they will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel” (Gen 3:15). This first prophecy of the Messiah, found in the Old Testament, is a glimmer of the glad tidings of salvation and the reference to the offspring (or seed of the woman) is to Christ being born of the Virgin Mary as well as to that Child being one Person who unites two natures because the Christ is both human and divine. Then, from that point until the first coming in Bethlehem, Israel’s long period of expectation and anticipation began. Today, as was true of Israel, when the Messiah was born, the Church is similarly situated as the Israelites were in terms of Christ’s Second Coming – we are living in exile from our true homeland, while waiting, hoping, and longing for Christ to return. During Advent, the Church looks back to Bethlehem and, simultaneously, looks forward to the ultimate advent when God’s kingdom will arrive in its fullness. Popular thinking is that Advent is just the preliminary warm-up to Christmas and the Savior’s Birth. However, the season’s twofold emphasis implies that only among the shadows and bursts of light that Advent casts—only by its proper observance can the miracle of Christmas be fully appreciated. And, then, only in the light of the Word-made-flesh (or Incarnation) does the Christian way of living bear proper fruit. Between God’s promise fulfilled that He would send the world a Savior and the hope-filled search for another promise which remains unfulfilled that Christ will come again, constitutes the present situation of the Church – the already (First Coming) and the not yet (Christ’s return in glory)!
Advent and the Parousia – Christ’s Second Coming
One often overlooked element of the two-fold nature of Advent is its focus on the end-times or Christ’s return in glory. Since the exact date of the final day of human history is indeterminate, planning and being prepared for whenever Christ returns in glory is fused with the length of the individual lives we have been given. When the prospect of death becomes a reality, from the moment we depart this life, repentance of sin is no longer possible and no further increase in grace-filled acts can be achieved – even sacraments are ineffective for those who have died. Thus, our fate at the Last Judgment is determined not when Christ comes again, but by the particular or individual judgment which is predicated upon how well we have lived the lives that are now ours in accord with Christ’s commands. From the earliest persecutions of the Church by the Roman emperors to genocidal crimes in recent centuries, those tragedies prefigure the Parousia and serve as a graphic reminder of the end times. Such monstrous crimes, when recognized for what they are, constitute a foretaste of the cataclysmic features of the final days of human history. Having survived human tragedies of many kinds, individually or as the Church, the end of our lives or the end of the world are less likely to be horrifying. As Dante wrote, “The arrow we see coming is half spent” (Paradiso XVII, 27) which means that because Christ has forewarned us about the inevitable end and its signs or conditions – persecution, apostasy, the Antichrist and more – such a revelation will allow the faithful to endure the present, more immediate challenges to faith in Christ. The Lord’s First and Second Comings, then, are intertwined, as Cardinal Daniélou wrote, “First of all, it means that the Last Things have already begun. The resurrection of Christ is presented as the first and decisive act of the last day. The Word of God took humanity to himself in the Incarnation, and cleansed it through his precious blood, and brought it into his Father’s house forever at his ascension. The work of salvation has been substantially done, everything essential has been secured already….” (The Lord of History. Ch. 8 Notions of Eschatology). The eschaton or the culmination of time and history has its focus in the kingdom that Christ established which is Christ Himself and from Pentecost until the Parousia the Kingdom is found in the Church, as Christ’s mystical body.