The Reverend Dr Michael Hull writes…
Advent is a mesmerising season in the liturgical year. It requires Christians to look to the past and to the future concurrently in the present. In Advent, we commemorate the first coming of our Lord as a gentle child, and we anticipate the Lord’s second coming as a fearsome judge. The overarching prayer for Advent is well expressed by St Paul: ‘Our Lord come!’ Paul uses the term maranatha, an Aramaic word in Greek characters (1 Corinthians 16.22), that may be taken as ‘the Lord has come’ as well as ‘Lord, come’.
The Old Testament is replete with prophecy about the Messiah’s coming. For instance, God promises Abraham a seed by which all nations shall be blessed (Genesis 22.15–18; cf. 49.8–12); Nathan repeats the promise to David (2 Samuel 7.8–16) in terms of a ‘throne established forever’; the Psalmist prophesies, ‘thou art my Son, this day I have begotten thee’ (2.7), along the lines of Isaiah who foresees that ‘a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel’ (7.14); and Isaiah also tells us that darkness will pass, ‘for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace (9.2–7; cf. Micah 5.2). The Old Testament anticipates its fulfilment in the Messiah.
Jesus alludes to this fulfilment in himself when he quotes Isaiah (6.9–10) in the Gospel of Matthew (13.10–17). Jesus says to his disciples, ‘Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it’ (cf. Luke 10:23–24; John 8.56). We, like those first disciples, are the ones who have seen the Baby Jesus and the Risen Lord. We are blessed, indeed, to commemorate the marvel of the Incarnation, of Jesus’ holy birth, in Bethlehem. We are blessed, indeed, to know the future, namely that ‘the Son of Man shall come again with power and great glory’ (Mark 13.26).
It would be a sore misreading of Holy Scripture to expect Jesus’ second coming to be like his first. That is why the biblical readings in Advent highlight the awe-inspiring return of Christ along the lines of John Wesley’s hymn ‘Lo! He comes with clouds descending’ based on the mediæval Latin sequence ‘Dies irae’:
Every eye shall now behold him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at nought and sold him,
Pierced and nailed him to the tree,
Shall the true Messiah see.
Advent is a season that calls for self-reflection in anticipation: Am I worthy to behold the innocence of the Christ child, who comes to me in great humility and vulnerability? Am I worthy to stand before the justice of the Lord Christ, ‘who shall judge the quick and the dead at his [second] appearing’ (2 Timothy 4.1)? The answer to both questions is, of course, ‘no’, ‘not now’, ‘not ever’. Thanks be to God, though, we are redeemed not by our worthiness, but by the worthiness of Jesus. It is in Jesus that ‘the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (Titus 2.11–13).
The question before us in Advent is whether we are seeking to live godly lives in the present age as we await our blessed hope. Advent helps us to focus on the task of ‘working out our salvation with fear and trembling’ (Philippians 2.12), but the edge of the season has gone dull. Instead of spending time with Scripture, we spend more time shopping. As William Wordsworth would have it, ‘The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.’ Instead of being mesmerised by the spiritual, we are spellbound by materialism. We think too little of the Babe lying in the manger and the Ruler coming in the clouds, and too much of earthly treasures, ‘where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal’ (Matthew 6.19). Yet, despite our foolishness, God is immensely generous with us, year-on-year. A new season of Advent is about to begin, a new liturgical year, and a renewed opportunity to recalibrate our lives in terms of maranatha. Christ has come, and we pray for Christ to come again when the true Messiah we shall see!
The Reverend Dr Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is Director of Studies at the Scottish Episcopal Institute (Edinburgh), the training agency for authorised ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Dr Hull also tutors in biblical studies and Christian doctrine at SEI, acts as the Editor of the Scottish Episcopal Institute Journal. He earned his doctorate in biblical theology at the Gregorian University (Rome) and has published in the field.
A native New Yorker and now adopted Scot, Dr Hull came to SEI and moved to Edinburgh in 2015, after sixteen years as a professor of Sacred Scripture at St Joseph’s Seminary (Yonkers, NY), whilst serving in a variety of ecclesiastical and pastoral roles in New York.