Your country is at war and you’ve just been conscripted to fight it. There’s a good possibility that you’re going to have to shoot people on the other side of the battle line. Yes, the war is just. Yes, you’ve been properly trained to fight. But do you ever adjust to the idea of killing another person? And there’s more. There’s the tedium of routine during the war, in the “down time” after you’ve said all your prayers and written all your letters home. At that time, too, it’s hard to adjust to aspects of Army life. You find yourself peeling potatoes or cleaning latrines — which is what armies do when they’re not shooting each other. Then there are the unknown factors of warfare to fear — such as when you’ve been asked to pull guard duty at four in the morning along a perimeter where unseen dangers lurk behind every other bush. Can there be any possible justification for leaving a warm bed in the middle of the night to put your life at risk?
No, of course not. But what Samuel Johnson used to say about being hanged is also true about being a solider in war: “Nothing so wonderfully concentrates the mind.”
Isn’t this what Advent is about? An intense, resolute — even consuming — concentration of the mind? Concerning what? An event — The Event — that could happen at any moment, and very likely will when one least expects it. “Be watchful! Be alert!” we are told, because one never knows the day nor the hour when the Son of God will choose to strike. We only know that he is coming, not when. God help us, therefore, were he suddenly decides to swoop down, only to find us fast asleep.
Prepare for Love
To be sure, in the case of getting up to guard a perimeter in time of war, your sergeant’s wrath keeps you from sleeping in. I think I’d have almost preferred withering enemy fire to the tongue-lashing administered by an enraged master sergeant. But fear is not supposed to be the controlling motivation for observing the admonitions of the Lord. In asking for the grace to remain steadfast and vigilant, ready to roll at a moment’s notice, one’s reason ought not to be a sense of terror in the face of what follows, but, rather, love of the One who is coming.
And when Christ comes, how shall we know him? In the first instance, of course, he comes as a little child, as meek and innocent as the Lamb he will soon enough become. “O great little one!” exclaims the poet Richard Crashaw, “whose all-embracing birth / Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.”
Here is the appearance we are all familiar with — and, for some of us, cloyingly so: the helpless Child whose coming among us we celebrate every year, even as we commemorated nine months earlier the actual enfleshment of God in our world. Miraculously sequestered in the tiny compressed space of Mary’s womb, there is Christ — or in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Infinity dwindled to infancy.” And the imagery evokes no end of amazement at a God determined to be with us.
There can be no mistaking the truth of his identification with weak and wayward humanity.
Here, the sudden delighted discovery of the Christ Child corresponds to all that we cry out for, which is our longing for a God who does not just cross the sea of Absolute Being, as philosophers from Plate to Heidegger have speculated, in order to eavesdrop upon our lives. No, we are waiting for a God to enter so deeply into solidarity with us that he will assume the whole bloody and broken mess of our fallen estate. And even if Christ were not to come, if the promised salvation were not to be found, we should remain, as Franz Kafka tells us, “worthy of it in every instant.”
Now and Forever
It reminds me of a question I was sometimes asked by one of my children when they were younger.
“When will God open the clouds, Papa, and come down?” Will he, in other words, be coming anytime soon? And the answer I gave, falling short of that paternal wisdom one hopes to impart, was: “How should I know? I’m only a theologian. Go ask your mother.”
And, of course, neither did she know. The point is: Nobody knows, which is why (once again) we ought always be ready to welcome the Lord, the exact hour of whose arrival it is not given to any man (or woman) to know. We only know — or rather believe — that he comes, but not when. Because he comes in search of us, though, bearing the very wounds of divine love, we need always to stay awake, so that we may all the more quickly be caught.
And what, pray, is the implication of that waiting time? Only that, when Christ truly returns, when at last he does come crashing through the ceiling of the cosmos, it will be a moment of sheer, absolute, unbounded joy — an astonishment of delight destined to go on forever. So startling, in fact, that, putting it as Emily Dickinson once did in a letter to a clergyman friend, “it leaves but little room for other occupations.” When the blessed soul looks upon the face of God, is it probable that any distraction could get in the way?
For great numbers, we hope, this will be so. But it will not be the case, alas, for all. If the evidence of human history has taught us anything, it is that there is enough villainy in the world to overflow all the suburbs of hell. For these folk, the news of Christ’s return will not inspire either joy or hope.
The sudden shattering appearance of God, his final in-breaking into the world he made, will produce the most profound dislocation imaginable — an eternity of loss, no less, on which they, the lost, will have definitively fixed their minds and wills.
But for those who have been awaiting the arrival in hope, there could never be an outcome more deeply desired nor sought after than this endpoint of human history. It will pierce the soul right to the core, providing an ending of the story more poignant even than grief, for the world shall at last see God, the One who has come all the way from heaven to gather up the scattered shards of human experience. All the pain and the loss will be joined to that perfect oblation of the Son to the Father, in order that, purged of the dross of human sin, they are ready to be received by God into the Kingdom his Son had first gone to the cross to secure. “A condition of complete simplicity,” is how T.S. Eliot calls it, “costing not less than everything. And all shall be well and / All manner of things shall be well / When the tongues of flame are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one.”
It will be the Second Coming of Christ, the Parousia, of which the apostle Paul speaks: “The Lord himself will come down from heaven and issue a command, with an archangel’s voice and a blast from God’s trumpet. Those who died with Christ will rise first, then we who are living, who remain, will be caught up into the clouds with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we’ll always be with the Lord. Encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17).
Because Christ is Lord of history, Judge and Ruler of the whole blooming universe, his reign must last until he has subjected all things to himself, including death. A most wonderful and all-encompassing catastrophe! Or, to use a splendid word invented by J.R.R. Tolkien, “Eucatastrophe,” which he describes as a “sudden and miraculous grace,” refuting in a single instant the evidence that evil and death could possibly be given the last word. And the soul, Tolkien says, “perceives that is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made.”
We are made for God, for lasting happiness, and he will not be denied the company of those who love him and trust him. To be reminded afresh of that fact, and then actually to embark upon the path leading to such glorious Euchatastrope, is the whole point of Advent. May it end well for all of us.
Regis Martin, STD, is a professor of dogmatic and systematic theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville.