Our Lord Jesus cautions us to beware of the day of his return. Although we often think of Advent as a time to get ready for Christmas, the sacred season is about much more than that, as our gospel reading for today reminds us.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
28 November 2021
Advent is not simply about preparing for the celebration of Christmas. It’s about reorienting our lives to the Lord Jesus. Holy mother Church, as a caring mother, gives us the season of Advent that we may prepare ourselves for that encounter with Christ that is on everyone’s horizon.
Advent is season of promise and hope, a season of watchfulness and expectation, it’s a time whose penitential character reminds us of the requirement to atone for our sins through acts of penance.
In our first reading, the Prophet Jeremiah announces that “The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah.”
These words filled the hearts of the people with hope because, through them, the Lord promised to bring safety and security to the house of Israel. Recall that, although Israel was once a most powerful nation, it had long suffered terrible persecution and defeat under surrounding pagan nations. In the face of this situation, the Lord pledged to restore Jerusalem by providing a king who will reign and govern with wisdom (Jer 23:5). This king will “defend the oppressed …, save the children of the poor and crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4). He will not be just any king; he will be a Shepherd sent from the Lord himself.
Looking back from our vantage point, we know that the Shepherd the Lord is going to provide for his people is his own Son: Jesus Christ. The Son of God is the only one who can crush Satan, the oppressor, and break the captivity of sin in a definitive way. And yet, Christ will arrive in an unexpected, mysterious way, and his kingdom will be just as unexpected and mysterious.
In today’s gospel, Jesus speaks to his disciples using startling apocalyptic imagery. Apocalypse is a word from the Greek apokaluptikos, which means to “unveil” or “uncover.” It’s where we get the Latin revelatio, which translates into English as “revelation.” Think for example of the apocalyptic imagery in the Book of Revelation, which has fascinated people down through the ages.
In any case, Jesus is alerting us to the fact that a time is coming when the “heavens will be shaken.” There will be signs in the sky and people “will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world.” At that time, a cosmic event will occur, and men will “see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
Put yourself in the shoes of the disciples as they stand listening to Jesus. They must have been alarmed to say the least. But what is our Lord speaking about? Thankfully, we can turn to holy mother Church to better understand his words.
Jesus is speaking about his Second Coming, the day on which he will return in glory at the end of time. To be clear, we don’t know when our Lord will return, but we do know that the time is drawing nearer each day. Our Lord could arrive soon, or it may be thousands of years in the future. We don’t know. What we do know, is that his Second Coming is on the horizon. Before that day arrives, certain events will take place. Here’s what the Catechism says about it:
Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.CCC, 675
If we’re paying attention, it’s easy to see that some of these events are happening now, at least to some extent. Think for a moment about the terrible scandals that have rocked the Church and continue to do so. We can also think of a kind of “religious faith” that is placed in medical technology as a “new savior.” We might think about the transhumanist movement in which certain individuals believe the fusion of technology with the human person will bring about eternal life. In this view, biomechanical technology becomes the “savior.” All of these things and more are evidence of an apostacy from the truth that seems to be unfolding around us.
The Second Coming of Christ
What about the day on which our Lord returns? What does holy mother Church say about that?
The resurrection of all the dead, “of both the just and the unjust,” will precede the Last Judgment. This will be “the hour when all who are in the tombs will hear [the Son of man’s] voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”CCC, 1038
So, when our Lord Jesus returns, the first major event will be the resurrection of the dead, as we profess in the Nicene Creed. Following that, the Catechism tells us:
Then Christ will come “in his glory, and all the angels with him. . . . Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. . . . And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”CCC, 1038
At the end of time, the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. After the universal judgment, the righteous will reign for ever with Christ, glorified in body and soul. The universe itself will be renewed:
The Church . . . will receive her perfection only in the glory of heaven, when will come the time of the renewal of all things. At that time, together with the human race, the universe itself, which is so closely related to man and which attains its destiny through him, will be perfectly re-established in Christ.
Sacred Scripture calls this mysterious renewal, which will transform humanity and the world, “new heavens and a new earth.” It will be the definitive realization of God’s plan to bring under a single head “all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.CCC 1042, 1043
In summary, when our Lord returns the dead will be raised and the nations will be judged. The righteous will go off to eternal life, whereas the unrighteous will go off to eternal damnation.
In our gospel today, Jesus warns us to:
Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.
Our Lord’s words raise some serious questions. How will we “have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent”? How will it be possible for us to “stand before the Son of Man” when he comes in glory to judge the world?
The answer is found in trusting in Christ, availing ourselves of his grace, AND responding to the Holy Spirit.
Trusting in Christ
In terms of turning to Christ in trust and hope, Pope Benedict XVI said these words in a homily he gave on the First Sunday of Advent in 2005:
The hope expressed is that each one may be made holy by God and preserved irreproachable in his entire person—“spirit, soul and body”—for the final coming of the Lord Jesus; the guarantee that this can happen is offered by the faithfulness of God himself, who will not fail to bring to completion the work he has begun in believers.
The point Benedict XVI is making is that Christ himself is preparing us for his final coming, just as he did his disciples 2000 years ago. With his divine power, he is making us ready and perfect. It is Jesus who preserves those who love him and makes them irreproachable. He does this, for example, through the sacraments of Baptism, Confession, and the Eucharist.
In our gospel today, Jesus reminds us to trust in him. Speaking of his Second Coming, he tells us that “[W]hen these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” If we truly love Jesus, have faith in him, and are following his commandments we can raise our heads and embrace his arrival with joy.
Responding to the Grace of Christ
For our part, we must respond to the grace and love of Christ.
In our second reading from First Thessalonians, St. Paul urges us to strengthen their hearts in love, that we may be “blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus.” Paul calls us—warns us even—to conduct ourselves so as to be pleasing to God. He exhorts us to follow the instructions we have received through him from the Lord Jesus. Paul reminds us that life is not a game. We must stay focused on the Lord. We must center our minds and hearts on heavenly things.
Beware that the day of my return does not catch you by surprise like a trap.
What’s the solution? Faith in Christ. Trust and hope in him. Watchfulness. The virtuous life of Christian discipleship. Prayer and penance and living the gospel life of holiness. Responding to the Holy Spirit who directs us and sanctifies us. In a word, the answer lies in becoming like Christ and living as a “little christ” in a constantly changing world—a world that knows him not (John 1:10).
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.