INCREASINGLY, worshippers experience the messages of Advent and Christmas concurrently, attending nativity plays and carol services even as they hear this season’s lections on sobriety, vigilance, and the end times. While this can create dissonance, it paradoxically reveals an important truth. The Advent theme of the end times indicates what is at stake if the message of Christmas is true. Since Christ is indeed God’s Word made flesh, we should expect him to return in glory as he has promised.
This Sunday’s readings speak of Christ’s ultimate return “at an unexpected hour”, but they also invite us to ponder what St Bernard of Clairvaux calls his “intermediate coming”. Whereas, at the end of time, Christ will be seen in glory and majesty, Bernard tells us that his intermediate coming is like “a road on which we travel from his first coming to his last”. He comes to us “in spirit and in power”, making his dwelling-place in every heart that is open to him, and drawing those who receive him into the Church: the mystical Body of which he is the Head.
Earlier in Matthew 24, Jesus spoke to his disciples about his final coming “on the clouds of heaven”. When the disciples enquired about its timing, he did not answer directly, instead warning them not to be “led astray”. This response is expanded on in the passage we are given. As Anna Case-Winters observes, in saying that even he “does not know the day or the hour”, Jesus “redirects the disciples’ attention to the matter of what they should be doing in the mean time” (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew).
The three brief parables which follow encourage the disciples to be vigilant, faithful, and prepared rather than preoccupied with worries about exactly when Jesus will return and what might be the portents. Such vigilance prepares us not only to receive Christ when he returns in glory, but also to receive him here and now in his “intermediate coming”. In the words of our epistle, we are to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh”.
Raniero Cantalamessa contrasts Paul’s advice with some of the ethical attitudes that were prevalent in the wider culture of his day. Stoic philosophers used similar language to Paul to praise enkrateia (self-control), and to condemn porneia (translated here as “debauchery and licentiousness”, meaning that enslavement to immediate pleasure which leaves human beings with no capacity to pursue the goods of faithfulness, generosity, and love).
For Stoic moralists, the supreme ethical value was self-mastery: the conquest of desire and passion, so that they could achieve “interior peace and impassibility (apatheia)”. What this has in common with Christian ethics is its rejection of porneia. Yet the fundamental difference between Stoic and Christian ethics is that the Christian believer does not seek self-mastery, but, rather, the Lordship of Christ. This Lordship is not understood as a matter of exterior command, but of divine indwelling.
Our epistle tells us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” As Cantalamessa explains, this is not about establishing the control of reason over instinct, but, rather, about the light of Christ transfiguring “the whole person — reason and instincts” (Life in Christ: A spiritual commentary on the Letter to the Romans).
In this respect, the message of our epistle intensifies that of our Old Testament lesson. Isaiah presents a vision of eschatological peace and harmony, summoning the “house of Jacob” to “walk in the light of the Lord”. As Walter Brueggemann explains, “The address ‘house of Jacob’ treats the community as children of the great promises in the Genesis narratives, and is offered as a call to worship.” The verb “walk”, however, indicates the requirement of “Torah obedience”, while the phrase “the light of the Lord” may allude to God’s light in creation, as it overcomes the chaos of darkness, or to the divine presence in the Temple (Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 1-39).
Because of his first coming in the humility of Bethlehem, the light and presence of the Lord now dwells within his people. As Bernard tells us, “the Son with the Father will come to you. The great prophet who will restore Jerusalem will come to you and make all things new. . . Just as the old Adam used to control us, so now let Christ, the second Adam, who created and redeemed us, take possession of us, whole and entire.”