Advent Tension

Earlier this year, as I prepared to give a talk on the Eucharist as the “eschato-logical sacrament,” I was struck by a passage from Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Pope John Paul II's 2003 encyclical on the Eucharist in its relationship to the Church.

Describing the relationship between the Eucharist and the blessed hope of the Parousia of Jesus Christ, the Holy Father writes: “The Eucharist is a straining toward the goal, a foretaste of the fullness of joy promised by Christ (see John 15:11); it is in some way the anticipation of heaven, the ‘pledge of future glory.’” He then states, “The eschatological tension kindled by the Eucharist expresses and reinforces our communion with the Church in heaven.”

Chances are you haven't heard the phrase “eschatological tension” used too often, whether at the water cooler or even at Mass. But when we consider what it means to be a follower of Christ and a member of the pilgrim Church, we recognize that we do live with and in tension. That tension exists because we live in temporal history between the “already accomplished” (the Incarnation) and the “yet to be completed” (the Parousia and fullness of the Kingdom). While yet on earth, we live with the knowledge that we are meant for heaven. We understand that we are spiritual and material. We know that we are sinful and being saved. We recognize that we are dying and graced with eternal life.

Advent is a wonderful time to contemplate this fact and to ask ourselves if there should be more of this tension in our lives. I have to admit I am often a bit too comfortable with being earthly, material and sinful. I know I sometimes shy away from looking to heaven, of becoming more spirit-filled and of working out my salvation with fear and trembling (see Philippians 2:12).

Despite my personal interest in the “end times,” I prefer to ponder the quiet mysteries of the Nativity and shy away from the future, earth-shattering wonder of the Parousia, when the quiet Babe of Bethlehem will be revealed as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. But the two cannot be separated. Without the first coming, there is no Second Coming; without the Second Coming, the first remains incomplete. The swaddling clothes must give way to brilliant robes. The donkey will step aside for the thundering white horse.

Many Christians who contemplate the end of time become obsessed with bloody scenarios and violent visions. The stunning commercial success of end-of-the-world fiction indicates that some readers are looking to escape the eschatological tension, hoping to flee from the clutches of earth and the mortal life. But, for Catholics, escape is not a consideration; the cross is not optional.

Yet the tension of living in the present is not a reason for despair but for hope. The Holy Father writes: “A significant consequence of the eschatological tension inherent in the Eucharist is also the fact that it spurs us on our journey through history and plants a seed of living hope in our daily commitment to the work before us. Certainly the Christian vision leads to the expectation of ‘new heavens’ and ‘a new earth’ (Revelation 21:1), but this increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today.”

The good news is that the King didn't just come 2,000 years ago — he comes to us each time we receive holy Communion. And he comes during Advent, preparing our hearts for Christmas. “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

Carl E. Olson is editor of Envoy magazine and author of Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”?