Biblical people always seem to be hoping and waiting for God’s arrival. Five hundred years before Jesus’ birth, Third-Isaiah begs Yahweh in the first reading on Sunday (Is 63: 16-17, 19; 64: 2-7) to “rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you...for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt.”
The prophet believes only Yahweh’s arrival can save the Israelites from all the problems which have entangled them since their return from Babylon.
This longing for and anticipation of God’s presence carries over into the Christian Scriptures. Yet it shows itself in ways we often overlook. No matter how hard we try to surface them, we really don’t have any passages which mirror our preparing for Christmas.
First things last
The authors of the Christian Scriptures would understand neither our celebration of Advent or our commemoration of the millennium. Both revolve around an arrival of God which the first Christians thought insignificant: the historical Jesus’ birth.
Had Dionysius the Short, the creator of the modern calendar, lived in the first century, instead of the sixth, the beginning of the second Christian millennium would still be 30 years away.
All the early Church’s theology, Scripture and dating starts not with Jesus’ birth, but with His death and resurrection. That event alone determined how His followers lived their lives. One’s Christian faith was judged on how closely he or she tried to imitate the faith of Jesus, which brought Him through death to life, not on how one celebrated Christmas. Even our two Gospel infancy narratives were shaped by Matthew and Luke’s reflection on Jesus’ dying and rising.
So when in Sunday’s second (I Cor 1: 3-9) and third (Mk 13: 33-37) readings biblical Christians speak about waiting “for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ,” or encourage people to “be alert” for Jesus’ coming, they aren’t referring to His birth in Bethlehem, but to His second coming as the risen Lord, a coming anticipated by everyone living in Christianity’s first 40 years.
Both Paul and Mark, thinking Jesus’ Parousia to be just around the corner, often encourage their communities to be prepared for His arrival.
In the second reading, for instance, Paul basically tells his Corinthian church to “hang in there.” “He (God) will keep you firm to the end,” he writes, “irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul bases his confidence on an experience all Christians share: the “fellowship” each has with the risen Jesus right here and now, even before the Parousia. The person we expect to come in the future is already one with us in the present.
Likewise, Mark compares Jesus’ second coming to an important individual who could arrive home from a long trip at any time. “May he not come suddenly,” he prays, “and find you (the servants) sleeping.’ There’s only one thing anyone can do to prepare for such an untimed situation: “Watch!”
Of course, as we read early Christian authors, like Paul and Mark, who presume Jesus’ Parousia is imminent, we realize that 1,950 years later, Jesus still hasn’t returned in the way they expected. How can Christianity still exist if its earliest expectations weren’t fulfilled?
The continuation of our faith depends on one ting: a constant imitation of Jesus’ dying and rising. It was that imitation which eventually led our biblical writers to discover Jesus’ presence in each person who followed Him, allowing them to push their expectation of an actual Parousia onto the back burner of faith.
Do you realize that if Jesus’ first followers had made a big deal out of His birth, we today wouldn’t even be celebrating Advent or the millennium. We’d know about Christianity only from a college history of religions course!