The Church has a really strange way of preparing us for the joy of the Christmas season.
It has us spend much of Advent reading about the end of the world.
Consider the gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent this year:
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will die of fright
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of Man
coming in a cloud with power and great glory (Luke 21:25-27).
This past Sunday we were introduced to the figure of John the Baptist — a doomsday prophet if ever there was one — and, next week, we will hear one of those dire warnings:
I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor
and to gather the wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (Luke 3:16-17).
These do not seem like the sort of prophecies we expect for Christmas. No mention of the virgin birth, the Prince of Peace and Emmanuel, or the light of the world. Of course it is in the Old Testament readings that we find all of that prophetic joy. But this is only to beg the question: why is it that as we get closer in the biblical timeline to the joyful birth of Christ that the tone gets darker?
The easy or obvious answer is that in remembering the First Coming of Christ we are to look ahead to the Second Coming, but this answer alone seems unsatisfactory. Could there be a deeper connection between the two?
Further reflection on the readings seems to suggest an affirmative answer. The Church insists too much on the juxtaposition of the readings for Advent and the apocalypse for the connection to be merely a superficial one.
It seems that the Church wants us to have the images of the apocalypse in mind as we begin to look forward to Christmas. The reason is that the same helpless infant who lies in a manger is the Judge who returns at the end times. In other words, the same Son of Man who is ‘coming in a cloud with power and great glory’ on the day the heavens shake and people perish in fear is the same baby adored by the shepherds and Magi.
The juxtaposition of Advent and the apocalypse, then, drives home the truth of the Incarnation as the union of the divine and human, the marriage of heaven and earth, the Word in the flesh. That is both joyful and jarring. Indeed, the truth of the Incarnation should always surprise us. We should be jostled out of our deep sleep. As Ephesians 5:14 declares, ‘Awake, o sleeper!’
The apocalyptic readings do more than just rouse us out of our comfort zones. They also instill a sense awe before the Christ Child. They remind us that He is the same one who will be the Judge who comes at the end of the earth to decide the fate of all men.
In fact, the first Advent is what makes possible the second one. For it is precisely by virtue of His earthly life and death that Christ is the judge. He is uniquely positioned to judge humanity because He has been human. As the medieval theologian Nicholas of Cusa notes in his sermon on Christ’s descent to hell, the Son of God judges all according to the standard He set by His life. And the standard He set was one of ‘Absolute Obedience’ to the Father. Nicholas concludes,
For His obedience is the exemplar of obedience, so that in accordance with it all men are judged. And so, He is the Judge of the living and of the dead.
The Incarnation then, from the very beginning, even before the Cross, sets in motion the events that lead to the end of the earth. It is very fitting, then, that we keep the Apocalypse in mind during Advent, given that it is the destination towards which this season propels us. The great comfort of Advent is that our future judge has come in advance of His day of judgment in order to console us, strengthen us, and transform us in order that we might be ready.