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The Coming One

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Written by Basil on 11/21/2010 4:20 PM. Filed under:


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A meditation on the meaning of the season of Advent.

I grew up in the West, and so Advent was an important part of the preparation for Christmas.[1] The Advent wreath, Advent calendars, singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” — these memories burn in mind like a flame as shining examples of what Advent means.

Advent comes from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming.” “Beginning the Church’s liturgical year, Advent is the season leading up to the celebration of Christmas. The Advent season is a time of preparation that directs our hearts and minds to Christ’s second coming at the end of time and also to the anniversary of the Lord’s birth on Christmas,” according to the website of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. The second coming of Christ is the focus of Advent because the readings and proper hymnography of the church remind the faithful of the yearning of suffering Israel, as well as the imminent coming of the Lord. The burning desire of the old covenant saints burns in our hearts as we long for the coming of the Lord.

The first Sunday of Advent always follows the last Sunday of the church year, the Solemnity of Christ the King. Prior to the liturgical reforms of the twentieth century, the gospel for Christ the King led directly into the yearning of Advent (Mt 24.15–35): “And then the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven; then, too, all the peoples of the earth will beat their breasts; and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (v. 30, NJB)[2] The King is coming: Be ready! It is the perfect prelude to the penitence of the coming season of preparation.

The scripture readings now in use in the Roman Catholic Church focus on the Lord as “the coming one.” Adding (or recovering) an Old Testament reading prior to the gradual psalm, these readings are all drawn from Isaiah. Yes, there is the obvious choice, Is 7.10–14: “the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel” (v. 14, NAB). But this reading doesn’t come until the fourth Sunday, when Advent is almost over and Christmas almost here!

The first Sunday’s Isaiah reading reminds us that “in days to come,” Jerusalem will draw people from every nation, and “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again” (Is 2.1–5, v. 4). Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds them that it is time to wake up: “The night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Ro 13.11–14, v. 12). The gospel is the passage immediately following the one formerly for Christ the King (quoted above): Mt 24.37–44. “As it was in the days of Noah,” says Jesus to his disciples, “so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” The Lord is coming, and you will not know when it will happen. It will be sudden and unexpected.

The gospel of the second Sunday continues this theme by focusing on John the Baptizer’s message. “It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: A voice of one crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths” (Mt 3.1–12, v. 3). “The wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid” (Is 11.1–10, v. 6). The hyperbole has become so trite that we forget its power: The wolf and the lamb dine together? The leopard and the newly-born goat sleep together? Lions eat hay? Absurdities, all of them: But if we picture it, it is exactly that kind of peace that the coming of the Lord will bring. And we must prepare for it; that’s what this season is about.

So, the question that I keep coming back to is this: Is the Christmas fast observed by the Eastern churches anything at all like the season of Advent? Let’s put aside the entire sentimental question of devotions and externals. The East knows nothing of an Advent wreath! Advent carols? Let us instead focus on the meaning of the seasons as represented in the liturgical texts.

The fast itself begins forty days before Christmas, on November 15, two weeks before the beginning of Advent. Liturgically, however, the first change is at the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple, when we first hear the Canon of Christmas. Other than this, there is no liturgical change — it’s all “Sundays after Pentecost” — until the Sunday of the Forefathers, two Sundays before Christmas. Liturgically, this day is all about the old covenant saints. We are reminded here and there of Christmas celebration, but it is just that: A reminder that the annual commemoration of the Lord’s birth in the flesh is near. The one mention of “come” is not a reference to the coming Lord, but a mention of the Persian magicians in the canon for the prefestive period: “Magi, kings of the East, come to see him” (Ode IV).

The one glimmer of the coming Lord, though, is significant: At the epistle for the Sunday of the Forefathers. “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory,” it begins, “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col 3.4–11, vv. 4, 5, NKJV). But the gospel is a parable about the rejection of the Lord’s invitation: “‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper” (Lk 14.16–24, vv. 23, 24, NKJV).

The gospel of the Sunday before the Nativity of our Lord mirrors exactly the gospel used in the Roman Catholic lectionary (though we include the genealogy, which they omit for pastoral reasons), Mt 1.1–25, which is the appearance to Joseph by the angel. In the Eastern lectionary, the epistle makes a lot of sense: select verses from Hebrews 11, which recounts the stories of old covenant heroes who waited patiently for the fulfillment of the messianic promise. This passage is about the patient waiting of the ancestors of Christ, but it is not about the coming Lord (except insofar as all scripture is about the coming Lord).

The hymnography, again, has no mention of the coming Lord. The virgin comes to give birth, and Ephratha should prepare for his arrival. But the idea that the Lord is coming again is not the point of the Eastern liturgical commemoration of the Birth of Christ. Why this is so will have to wait for another time: This reflection is already too long. But is the Christmas fast about the “advent” of the Lord? No.

Why does this bother me? Well, for one thing, I really miss Advent a lot, so it bothers me when people call something “Advent” that clearly is not Advent at all. Why do people do this? Well, Orthodox Christians who have grown up Orthodox may do it for two reasons: 1) The people who taught them the faith may have called the fast “Advent”, or 2) they want to be like the other Christians around them, and they don’t realize that the two liturgical seasons are completely unlike one another in every way except one: They both precede Christmas.

However, people who grew up in Western churches and converted to Orthodoxy (like myself) have a more sentimental reason: They miss Advent, too. Well, folks: Buck up. Advent is on the other side of the Bosphorus from here. We don’t have Advent in this church, as I have shown above. We have a fast which precedes Christmas, but it isn’t about the advent of the Lord. The Greek word which exactly corresponds to “advent” is parousia, but it doesn’t appear in the liturgical texts leading up to Christmas. The Parousia isn’t what the Christmas fast is about!

Why not? Well, I’m still trying to figure that out.

Linknotes:
  1. There are non-liturgical traditions among the various sects of non-Catholic Western Christendom, but they represent, numerically and historically, a minority position.
  2. The readings from the Tridentine lectionary are from the Catholic-Resources.org website.


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