There really are two advents.
One is Advent proper, the season we’re in now, when we prepare for Christmas. But during this time, the Church asks us also to keep that other ‘advent’ in mind — the Second Coming of Christ.
It’s a jarring juxtaposition. In one coming, we have the baby and the manger, the chorus of angels and shepherds, the three wise men and their gifts. In the other, we can look forward to an actual descent from heaven, the dissolution of the created world, resurrection and judgment. Why does the Church put these two events together? They seem like bookends to the whole story of Christ and His Church. One is all about beginnings. The other is the end of all things.
What is the Church trying to teach us? Five lessons seem to be in mind.
1. Be watchful
While the two advents are different, our associated attitude should be the similar—a mixture of hope, expectation, and holy fear. In placing ourselves in the position of the Israelites in the time of Christ we learn how to prepare for His Second Coming. This is the core Church teaching.
2. Make wise use of your time
But there is an added benefit to constantly maintaining an attitude of watchfulness. People who are watchful generally make better use of the time they have then people who aren’t. (Credit for this insight goes to a friend at a Bible study who pointed this out.) As Ephesians 5:15-16 says, “Watch carefully then how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise, making the most of the opportunity, because the days are evil.” This advice comes in the context of a discussion about the end times. Note the preceding verse: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” Likewise, there is John 9:4, “We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work.”
3. Christ is the lord of history
The two advents remind us that history is in God’s hands. In Christ, God intervenes in history, resetting the story of humanity, guiding its development, and determining its conclusion. History is not a runaway train racing into an unknown future. It is not a product of chance or the impersonal laws of evolution, physics, or social science.
4. History has an end
In 1992, a political scientist named Francis Fukuyama wrote a sensational book titled The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama argued that history, defined narrowly as a debate of ideas, was over. Democracy had won, communism had lost, and global capitalism and technological progress were the future.
A quarter of a century later, amid Islamic terrorism and the resurgence of nationalism in the West, Fukuyama’s thesis seems foolish. But he was fundamentally right about one thing. History does have an end. The whole of history — whether you conceive of it as the development of ideas, institutions, nations, or technology — ends in Christ, who is the true last man.
The point is to not just reiterate that Christ is sovereign over history (see lesson 3), but also to make us realize the futility of temporal attachments, whether a particular ideology, system of government, nation, or civilization. These things do have value but we must remember that one day they—like history itself—will pass away.
5. Christ is our origin and destiny
Finally, in Advent, we learn again that Christ is our origin and our end. All things that matter have their source in Him and move towards Him as their destination. As Christ said in Revelation 22:13, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
image: The Nativity from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, an illuminated French Gothic manuscript / Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)