As we prepare for Jesus’s coming at Christmas, Advent begins by having us prepare for his final coming.
“People will die of fright,” says our first Gospel of the new Church year, “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.”
Our first reading, from the prophet Jeremiah, gives his coming a social, even political, spin. “The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah.” He will come not just for an individual, but for the nation.
Jeremiah, like all the prophetic authors, writes during the time the people of Israel are being taken captive, first by the Assyrians, then by the Babylonians. They are looking for a restoration, for peace and freedom and the blessed kingdom the Lord had promised, that seems destroyed by the kingship of sin.
They are looking especially for justice: “I will raise up for David a just shoot,” the Lord tells them, “he shall do what is right and just in the land. . . . In those days . . . this is what they shall call [Jerusalem]: ‘the Lord our justice.’”
Let us love that word “justice.” Some of my students seem to think it mostly means punishment. It doesn’t. Justice is people treating each other rightly. The first image for justice is when I pay the baker and he gives me a loaf of bread, the payment is balanced, and everyone benefits: right relationship. Of course this rises to much higher kinds of justice, to right relations between neighbors and between God and man.
If we love the Word of God, we learn to love that word, “justice.” We long for justice, hunger and thirst for it.
In Jeremiah, justice is something we look for at the end of time. The Lord is our justice. Only the true king will make a just kingdom. We could be tempted, then, to say that justice is not for now.
Our reading from First Thessalonians, however, warns us that we need to prepare to meet the Lord. It is true that there will be no just kingdom, no happy land, until the Lord comes. But it is also true that if we want to be part of his kingdom, we need to get ready by living by kingdom standards now.
We want to be “blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.” The ones with him are the holy ones. If we want to be with him, we need to be holy ones. We need to live by his standards. Half of our reading from St. Paul simply reminds us, “You know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus”: we listen to the Word of God, and so we are instructed in the ways of his people. We are instructed, among other things, to hunger and thirst for justice—the kind of justice, of real right relation, that, according to the Beatitudes, leads us to mercy.
But just as we receive instruction, even more, we receive the Lord’s Spirit, who is the truest instruction, the Law written on our hearts. So what St. Paul tells us we need to do even more than listen to his instructions is to receive the Lord: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love.” It is his work in us. He pours his love into us.
To be ready to receive the Lord, we must let him transform us into images of himself. If we let his love transform our hearts, we will be ready to meet him when he comes, ready to join his kingdom of justice.
As we look towards the baby at Christmas, what we really look for is the Lord who comes into our world, and teaches us his humility and love, so that we can meet him when he comes in glory.
Jesus says to his disciples, “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.”
I don’t know what exactly the clouds mean; my imagination still struggles with the image of him “riding on the clouds.” But notice, first, that Greek makes no distinction between “in” and “on.” Maybe he is “on the clouds,” floating through the sky. But maybe the point is that he is “in a cloud.”
When the Bible talks about clouds, it often means mystery, as the cloud that leads them in the Exodus and the cloud that overshadows them, “and they were afraid as they entered the cloud,” at the Transfiguration. Maybe the point is not so much that he is riding down from the sky as that he comes in mystery.
But notice, second, that “they” will see him in a cloud: they, the people who are dying of fright.
“But when these signs begin to happen,” Jesus tells us, “stand erect”—not they, but you, you who know me, who have prepared for my coming—“and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” If we live in his justice and his love—if we let his justice and love live in us—we have nothing to fear, because we will know him, and welcome him, not as a frightening stranger but as the one whose face we have contemplated, whose words we have memorized.
Let us live that way. Let Christmas be our preparation for his Advent.