This weekend we begin the beautiful and holy season of Advent. The word advent is not one we hear very often in English. It comes from the Latin, Adventus, which means arrival or coming, and what we celebrate in this season, of course, is the arrival or the coming of Christ.
There are several ways that the Church understands this coming of Christ among us. The obvious one is His first coming, as a child. In a very real and visible way, the invisible God entered into our world. As we say each week in the Creed:
By the power of the Holy Spirit
I would venture to guess that most Christians, in a particular way in these next few weeks, will celebrate that coming. Certainly we rejoice in that arrival or coming of Christ, yet what we celebrate primarily at Advent is the Second Coming of Christ, when He will come again at the end of time. That is why the gospel this weekend from St. Matthew, is focused on the final return of Christ in glory. It is a real event that we wait for and even seek to hasten whenever we pray the Our Father. Indeed, each week in our Creed we also profess.
He will come again in glory
But there is a third coming, a third advent, which St. Bernard of Clairvaux—the great 12th century monk and Doctor of the Church—talks about. He says that only those who are able to recognize Christ within themselves, within their own lives, will see this advent. Comparing it with the first two advents, he says:
Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last.
—St. Bernard of Clairvaux
St. Bernard says that this advent is a hidden or invisible one, unlike the first two. When Christ was born as a child of the Blessed Virgin Mary, His cries could be heard, His little hands and feet seen. As a young man, people would listen to Him speak; they saw Him heal the sick and raise the dead. Many watched Him suffer and die on the cross. They saw Him after He had risen from the dead.
In His Second Coming, Christ will be even more visible! The Scriptures talk about how He will come in great power and glory on the clouds of heaven (Luke 21:27, Matthew 25:31), and all will recognize Him: every Muslim, every Jew, every Atheist, every Protestant, every Catholic. Everyone living on the face of the Earth will see and recognize the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Not so, this third advent! Not so, this third arrival or coming of Christ! It will happen in a much more subtle way, and so we must be prepared for that coming in all the everyday and ordinary aspects of our lives…which is exactly what Christ is warning us about in the gospel this weekend!
He challenges each of us to be alert and awake, so that we do not miss Him:
Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
It is not only in the great and dramatic events of life that we come to know and recognize God. He comes to us often in the most ordinary and everyday things, and it is precisely there that we risk missing Him; precisely there that we need to keep awake and alert for the coming off the Living God.
Jesus uses the example of the days of Noah:
In those days, before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage…
Now what, you may ask, is wrong with those things? Nothing! There is nothing wrong with eating and drinking. Certainly there is nothing wrong with celebrating marriage and rejoicing with those we love. Those are all good things.
But the people of Noah’s day were concerned with only those things. They left no room for God. They left no room for the word of God and the message of God. They did not heed the warning of God, and they missed the boat…literally! They did not make it into the Ark. They all perished in the flood.
Christ draws the immediate conclusion:
So will it be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one will be left.
Again, Christ speaks of the ordinary stuff of life: grinding at the mill…working in the field…We could add: Working at the office…shopping at the mall…meeting with friends and family…
It can be so easy, in this busy season, to get caught up in so many of these activities, all of them good!
But if we focus on these things, and only these things; if we leave no room for God, no room for the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist each week, in which we are made new and strengthened in Christ; if we leave no room for daily prayer, in which our relationship with God is sustained; if we leave no room for the teachings of our faith and the practice of that faith in the everyday circumstances of life…
If we miss these things then we risk missing the coming of Christ in the third advent that St. Bernard talks about. If we are not attentive to Christ in the everyday aspects of our lives, then we also risk missing Christ when He comes again at the end of time, or the end of our lives. That is something that we should all take very seriously.
There is a beautiful story about St. Martin of Tours, a fourth century soldier of the Roman army in Gaul (modern day France). While still a young man, he felt called to become a Catholic and was planning eventually to be baptized (he was what the Church calls a catechumen).
One freezing cold and windy night, as he walked through the streets, he noticed an elderly man who was half-naked and begging for alms. People were walking past him, not even acknowledging the unfortunate soul. The thought suddenly occurred to St. Martin that this man had come to this street at this particular time especially for him.
He rushed over to help the man, but he didn’t have any money. All he had in his possession were the clothes on his back and the sword at his side. Suddenly Martin took off his cloak, and with the sword he cut it in half, giving one half to the poor beggar and wrapping himself in the other half.
Later that night, in a dream, St. Martin had a vision of Christ walking through heaven. He was wearing Martin’s cloak and speaking to the saints and the angels around him, saying:
“Do you see this cloak? Martin gave me this cloak. Martin, who is a catechumen, and not even yet baptized. Martin gave me this cloak!”
It was almost immediately after that night that Martin presented himself for baptism! He eventually became a bishop, and St. Martin of Tours is considered to be one of the most beloved and well known saints of the fourth century.
Are we able to see Christ in the people around us? Are we able to recognize Christ in the poor? Those who are poor physically; poor emotionally or spiritually? Are we able to recognize Christ in the people we see in the shopping mall, or in the supermarket; in our families and workplaces?
We are called to recognize Christ in all of the ordinary and everyday circumstances of life…but never more so than here in the Eucharist that we celebrate at the altar of God. Here Christ will come to us, He will arrive for us under the appearance of simple bread and wine, yet it is the true presence of Jesus Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity.
We are called to recognize Christ this day, on this First Sunday of Advent, right here in the Eucharist. Then we are called to leave this place and in this First Week of Advent, to simply recognize Him everywhere.