Scripture readings such as Matthew 24 have some Christians looking forward to what is called a Second Coming of Jesus but have other Christians scratching their heads, trying to figure out what the words of Jesus really mean. As for me, I look forward to Jesus’ coming but these passages in Matthew have me scratching my head a lot and raising some questions.
The scenario of the Second Coming seems to suggest that God is holding back, not doing anything while waiting to see what we humans do about the world and then jumping in with a decisive intervention when we mess things up. But isn’t God vitally present all the time?
The notion that it would be better to be caught doing good when Jesus comes rather than caught doing evil makes some sense but makes God seem more of a threat than a savior. More puzzling is the complacency on the part of some people who neglect pressing social issues such as ecology on the belief that Jesus will come before we destroy the planet. It seems to me that it would be a bad idea to be caught polluting the planet rather than helping to make the planet cleaner if Jesus should return a second time. It is even more troubling when some people think war is a good thing because it will bring on the Second coming, but one would think it would not be good to be caught waging a nuclear war if Jesus comes.
The violence imagined by some in a Second Coming gives the troubling impression that the first coming, when Jesus was crucified, didn’t work out, so the second time round God will jettison the Good Cop scenario and send the Bad Cop who beats up all the bad guys. Hoping for that kind of scenario denies that the Resurrection of the crucified Lord is the defining revelation of God’s Truth and makes the violent avenger the ultimate revelation.
But if we hold fast to the crucifixion and Resurrection as the vital primary truth of what God reveals to us about Godself, then our hope for Christ’s coming will be shaped by the compassion that lead God to become a vulnerable human being who was killed by his fellow humans. The violence on the part of humans in the crucifixion should alert us that the social violence Jesus warns about is done by humans and not by God.
This reflection suggests we should dwell on the first coming, the only coming that we know has happened. And if Christ has already come, Christ is already here and not waiting in the wings to pounce on us later. The name Emmanuel means “God is with us.” St. Benedict tells us that the first step of humility involves remembering that God is always present to us and that we should likewise be present to God. If Jesus is already “God with us” than who needs a second coming? Isn’t the first coming enough? Of course, we all know that we are very capable of being not so present to God and that inattentiveness easily leads to acting in ways we wouldn’t if we were attentive to God’s presence. When we are not being attentive to God, God’s persistent presence will keep pressing in on us until God breaks in on us like a burglar or a thief in the night.
We know that crises in our personal lives and in the larger social arena can break down our usual defenses against the Divine Burglar. It isn’t that God causes these crises just to help us grow spiritually, but God does use these events to enter more deeply into our lives. After all, it is in times of crisis that we are most apt to rethink our lives and ask ourselves what is really important and where our hearts are. These crises, whether natural disasters such as hurricanes or military invasions, also raise these fundamental questions. They also create victims in whom Christ is intensely present. When we meet Christ in the victims of human violence we bring Christ deeper into the world, where Christ wants to be–that is, be with us.
I suggest, then, that we use this season of Advent to open ourselves to God’s presence to us, encouraging Christ to come into our lives. Let us go out to meet the bridegroom by having times of prayer and reflection that give us time with God. Let us meet Christ most intimately in the Eucharist. In all these things, let us look forward to the celebration of the First Coming when Jesus comes among us as a helpless baby in a manger during the coldest time of year. Let us look forward to following Jesus through the following seasons in his ministry and in his cruel death. If there should be a Second Coming, what better preparation can we make for it? We have much to look forward to.