The Bethlehem Difference

The New Testament reading that began this Advent season, from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, was filled with the tension between the “now” and the “not yet” of the two comings of the Messiah-a tension that was evidently an issue for the early Church, and ought to be for us.

As biblical scholar Gianfranco Ravasi puts it in a commentary on that text (1 Thes 3:12-4:2), the “coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ and all his saints” preoccupied the early Christian community in Thessalonika,” where “the tension was continuous and almost palpable.” Paul’s new Thessalonian Christians were, evidently, in something of an eschatological rush: they anxiously “waited for the reappearance of Christ in the splendor of his divinity” in order to straighten things out-“to repair the confusions, traumas and brokenness of our history.” It’s hard, these days, not to sympathize.

2009 has been a beast of a year: the deaths of what seems a squadron of teachers, friends and irreplaceable leaders (Avery Dulles, Richard John Neuhaus, Francis Canavan, William Smith, Thomas Dillon, Ernest Lefever, Karen Novak, Irving Kristol, to name the most publicly prominent); a season of lethal global fanaticisms  unchecked by courage or effective statecraft; a low year in Washington, with a White House scrambling to find its feet and a Congress that would make a carnival barker blush; a public square dominated by sound-bites and mendaciousness; further deteriorations in the culture, including bizarre cults of personality; a divided Church, many of whose prominent public personalities seem little better catechized than toddlers; unemployed friends, life-threatening illnesses-and the Yankees won the World Series. Come, Lord Jesus, indeed. Soon. Please.

Through the lens of Archbishop Ravasi’s commentary, we get a glimpse of what St. Paul might have said, confronted by Thessalonians with a similar catalogue of woes and looking for a quick answer (and perhaps a little payback) in the Second Coming. Paul gently but firmly reminded “those believers who had become obsessed with impatience (for) ‘new heavens and a new earth'” of what they ought to have learned already: that “the new history of the world has already begun” in the Resurrection, such that we ought to be growing now into an unshakeable hope and an ever-deeper love. Remember that, the apostle suggested, and whenever it pleases God to send his Christ back in glory, we’ll be found ready, “unblamable in holiness.”

Which is, I suppose, an elegant, Pauline way of saying, “Stop whining.” Edginess and anxiety for the future are understandable; but they’re also inappropriate for men and women who should already be living the promised renovation of the universe, in the communion of the Church with its Lord. The Second Coming, after all, is not intended to be an instant fix for all the things we find difficult to make right; the Second Coming is intended to manifest the cosmic glory of God.

That bracing Pauline reminder of the “not yet” that is, or ought to be, present to us here and now is especially appropriate during this Advent/Christmas season-a time to re-center our lives on the truth of the Incarnation and to re-discover the courage to be Catholic, for 2010 promises to be at least as challenging as the year quickly fading into history. Marriage will remain under attack throughout the country, with those defending the classic understanding of marriage being branded as bigots. All over the world, the inalienable right to life will be assaulted in the name of autonomy and compassion. A madman who imagines himself capable of hastening the advent of the messianic age, as he (mis)understands it, may try to incinerate the Holy Land with nuclear fire. Religious freedom in Canada, Europe, and the United States will be under severe pressure from the champions of the dictatorship of relativism.

Facing that, we may well say, and mean, “Come, Lord Jesus.” But as we pray daily for the Kingdom’s coming in the words the Lord left us, let Christmas remind us that he has already come, which ought to make all the difference-the Bethlehem difference.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • noelfitz

    This is a wonderful article and is very appropriate for this time of the year and for the current state of the Church, both in the US and Ireland.

    It is very true for many of us that “2009 has been a beast of a year”. in this yea some of us, and our friends, have lost loved ones, job, homes, wealth, health, faith and hope. There seems to be a strong anti-Church tendency both within and without the Church and both the hierarchies and the faithful are faced with huge problems, both in Ireland and the US. The challenges include evangelizing among non-Catholics, keeping Catholics together as Christ’s Body, as well as bringing back the millions who have left.

    Paul’s First letter to the Thessalonians is the oldest NT text we have and the problems them and now have parallels. From it perhaps one of the best lessons we can learn is Paul optimistic and positive outlook.

    “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 1:2,3).

    “For this reason, brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith. For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? (1 Thess 3:7-9).

    Many today are encouraged in our faith by knowing that so may others are hanging on in there and not giving way to despair or fighting with other Catholics.

    Paul’s advice is valid for then and now – “stop whining”.

  • wgsullivan

    “Many today are encouraged in our faith by knowing that so may others are hanging on in there and not giving way to despair or fighting with other Catholics.”

    “other Catholics” Are those the ones that claim their Catholicism but choose not to practice it?
    My favorite line was, “a divided Church, many of whose prominent public personalities seem little better catechized than toddlers;”

  • noelfitz

    WG, thank you for your reply.

    There are many different Catholics in the Church, some are Jesuits, Dominicans, members of Opus Dei, Irish, Polish etc. Many of us differ appreciably.