Ask almost any Catholic you meet what the season of Advent is all about and you’re likely to get the response, “preparing for Christmas,” or “preparing for the birth of Christ.” Advent ends with the Feast of the Nativity or our Lord, after all, which is the first feast of the Christmas season. But, in fact, the primary purpose of Advent is to prepare for Christ’s “second coming” or Parousia.
Does Advent have anything to with Christmas at all, then? Yes, but how might blow your mind.
At Mass, Roman Catholics profess the “Nicaeano-Constantonopolitan Creed,” ratified in 381 at the First Council of Constantinople. The original language of this Creed is Greek, so most Catholics are reciting a translation of a translation at Mass, and a lot can get lost in translation: like the meaning of Advent in relation to Christmas.
Christ will come again
Toward the middle of the Creed, we profess that Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his Kingdom will have no end.” This phrase is a translation from the Latin, “Et iterum venturus est cum gloria, iudicare vivos et mortuos, cuius regni non erit finis.” A more literal translation might be, “And he is going to come a second time with glory, to judge the living and the dead; of his Kingdom there will be no end.”
But how does that square with the Greek original?
We don’t have space here to talk about all the subtleties present in this phrase, but some are essential. So, I’ll give it to you first in Roman characters and then, in parentheses, in its original alphabet: “kai palin erchomenon meta doxës krinai zontas kai nekrous, oü tës basileas oük estai telos” (καὶ πάλιν ἐρχόμενον μετὰ δόξης κρῖναι ζῶντας καὶ νεκρούς, οὗ τῆς βασιλείας οὐκ ἔσται τέλος). What does the Greek say that the Latin doesn’t, and what does it have to do with the season of Advent?
First off, the Latin uses the phrase, “iterum venturus est,” (“he is going to come a second time”). But the Latin, iterum, which we translate into English as “again,” corresponds to the Greek, palin, which has a connotation the Latin translation doesn’t capture. In the context of the Creed, it’s intended to mean, “redoundingly” or “as a kind of reverberation or echo or ripple-effect of an initial event.”
Understood in this sense, the “second” coming of Christ isn’t a separate event from the first—it’s not something other-than the Incarnation, as if we could have had the Incarnation but not the second coming. Rather, the second coming is the inevitable consequence of the Incarnation. It’s “second,” not in the sense of “next in a sequence of distinct things,” but in the sense of the Latin secundum quid or “on account of which.”
Once the Incarnation event occurs, in other words, its implications must eventually reach across the whole of time and space. All of history—past, present, and future—will be touched by the Incarnation event, and the day will dawn when Jesus Christ will be seen by all in the fullness of his glory.
The “second” coming of Christ is, therefore, both an event of the future and an event of the present. So, the Greek doesn’t say that Christ is going to come again but that he is coming, redoundingly. The Greek of the Creed articulates the idea that the full implications of the Incarnation event are working themselves out throughout the history of the world between now and the day that all creation comes to terms with Jesus Christ.
The New Testament authors called this event the Parousia. That word was taken from politics to describe a visitation by an important official, like a king or an emperor. The king would come before the people over whom he ruled, manifesting himself in a way that expressed his closeness and immediacy. The word literally means that he would come to “be-beside” his people. The root word ousia is a powerful word in this context. It means, substance-being or the very essence of the man.
When the New Testament authors use this term to describe Christ’s return, then, they’re not imagining that our present time in history is a history lived in Christ’s absence, but a history lived under his active jurisdiction. In the present age, however, the rule of Christ the King isn’t recognized by all, however real it is. There remain innumerable pretenders to the Throne and even those who propose that there is no Throne at all. Whatever we may think, the reality is sure: Jesus Christ is Lord and King over all creation, and he is coming to his people to show himself as he really is, to make himself known to us that we may have no further doubt about the matter.
This process, though, isn’t just something that will happen on some undisclosed day and hour, but something that is happening now, in the hearts of men, and through the medium of the Eucharistic liturgy. In saying this, I don’t deny that a future event of unimaginable glory is appointed as a historical moment yet to come for us, but I do mean to say that the approach of this moment is already a living reality in the lives of the faithful. Someday, everyone, everywhere, everywhen, will know it.
Advent and Christmas
The season of Advent is about preparing the heart for Christ the King, who came on Christmas morning in the soft, still quiet of a stable in a forgotten town, the definitive and unexpected heir to a long-fallen line of kings. Only a few anonymous observers saw him then for who he was. From that day until now, therefore, history is about coming to grips with Christmas morning: the day a new Kingdom came into being, unlike any the world had ever known.
Advent is a time for proclamation of that Kingdom to a fallen world and for a renewal of hearts for those who believe.
We who heed the Prophets’ cry to “make straight his paths,” make our own the ancient prayer of Advent, which casts the Day of Judgment as a day of Mercy: “Come, Lord Jesus! Come quickly and do not delay!”
May the whole world see, and soon, what the humble shepherds saw on the day of his birth: that the hand of a newborn baby held an iron scepter to command even the angels, already from his makeshift crib, because, impossible as it seems, the King of Glory had come to be among his people, and nothing would ever be the same again.