When I was young the liturgical season of Advent played a big role in my formative liturgical consciousness. It was, after all, the countdown to Christmas and the arrival of Santa down the chimney, that time when reasonably good behavior at home held promise to a glorious Christmas morning. Advent was the season of judgment in Santa’s allotment of toys. [Perhaps therefore the Church identifies Advent as a penitential season.] Later, as I matured out of such childhood musings, I learned to appreciate Advent as a season that begins on Thanksgiving weekend with the annual Ohio State-Michigan college football finale. Wherever you stand on the Advent consciousness meter, be reminded that the season starts next week. Covid or not, the Church calendar remains the same. The First Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of the Church calendar every year. The vestments next weekend will be purple.
I am writing this on November 23, the day after the celebration of “The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe,” the final Sunday of this liturgical worship year. For much of my adult life this observance had the simpler title of “Christ the King.” All three annual cycles of Sunday readings end with a description of the last times, the Second Coming of Christ, and focus upon the eternal destiny of every human. In the 1970 revision of the missal, the feast of Christ the King was transferred from late October to the end of the liturgical year in late November, and paired with the year’s final Sunday, popularly called “Last Judgment Sunday” in the old days. Sunday’s scripture readings were all apocalyptic or future oriented, as are the readings for this feast in Cycle B [St. Mark] and Cycle C [St. Luke] years.
For years I have heard preachers deliver essentially the same sermon on Christ the King: Jesus is not like other kings. My pastor put it this way when he said that “Jesus was not the warrior people were hoping for.” That interpretation is as old as the days the first editions of the Gospels were passed along to the early Christian assemblies around the Mediterranean. It is easy to take away from this interpretation that Jesus was a weaker king here on earth than the evil kings and princes of this world, but that at some distant point in the future Jesus would return from a spiritual world and have the last laugh.
Yesterday’s Gospel from Matthew depicts the coming of the Son of Man at the end of time, but this figure—whether intended to represent Jesus himself or his alter ego, the Son of Man—is not laughing. As Matthew puts it, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” If anything, the judge described here at the end of time will do precisely what kings and princes have always done, exercise power by the measure of loyalty to what the king holds dear in his wisdom and vision. In our case here, the king holds the alleviation of hunger, the welcoming of isolated foreign immigrants, the clothing and housing of the poorest, and the fair, humane treatment of the sick and prisoners as the hallmarks of his kingdom, and we will be judged on this parameter of attitude and behavior. Citizens of this kingdom who do not share the intentions of the king will hear: “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” This scenario sounds very much like the exercise of power earthly kings, which might be what St. Matthew has been trying to tell us over these many centuries.
Christianity, from its earliest Jewish roots, has been a religion for grown-ups. The famous German Lutheran minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis for an assassination attempt on Hitler, famously coined the expression “cheap grace” to describe the staid mediocrity of the mainstream churches. He wrote: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”
As we begin the observance of the Advent and Christmas seasons next weekend, it is critical to remember that these seasons are not the trail to Bethlehem but the road to Calvary. In 1978 the American biblical scholar Father Raymond Brown composed An Adult Christ at Christmas, a brief but informative collection of essays for adults that explains the Christmas narratives as predictive narratives of Christ’s passion. I will be describing Father Brown’s text in future posts, but for the moment let it suffice to say that he explains in his writing the methodology of unpacking the “Infancy Narratives” or the Advent-Christmas Gospel texts. From a “purely historical” perspective we know nothing of Christ’s birth, but thanks to Father Brown and the work of biblical scholars dating to the 1700’s we have a better understanding of what God intended in the revelation of these texts.
The danger of Advent is our tendency to recast it for children, both in catechetical style and preaching emphasis. As grown-ups, we should be awaiting a powerful appearance from God who comes to define and transform us. Our tendency, of course, is to join the children in awaiting a St. Nick figure who, at the end of the day, tears up our debit sheet and showers us with undeserved presents. In St. Mark’s Gospel, the text for Year B, Jesus preaches that the true disciple is one who takes up a cross and follows him. Our observance of Advent must reflect the One we await.