By Dr. Megan Strollo, CBFVA’s Theologian in Residence
“While [Jesus] was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, ‘Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.’” (Acts 1:11).
The opening scene from the Acts of the Apostles of these tarrying disciples seems perhaps like an odd place to begin a reflection on Advent. And yet, the season of Advent is appropriately characterized as a season of waiting. But the question must be asked—People of God, what exactly are we waiting for?
For many Christians today, Advent marks the period of time leading up to the celebration of Christmas, of Jesus’s birth in the small Judean town of Bethlehem. Sacred preparations include the lighting of candles, the arranging of nativities, the hanging of greens, and the procurement and distribution of gifts. During the season of Advent, we are encouraged to wait with expectant hope for the arrival of the Christ child, and our prayers, sermons, and liturgies often focus on that “silent night.” To put it simply, all of our preparations are for an event that has already occurred. In this sense, our Advent waiting is almost theatrical—we enact a deliberate waiting year and year again in order to prepare our hearts and our physical spaces for the remembrance of a truly remarkable act of God’s Love, the In-breaking of God. We celebrate with joy the reality that, beginning on that night, the Light of Christ now lives in every believer’s heart.
But that is only one aspect of our Advent waiting. While the origins of Advent are relatively unknown, and supported only with scant evidence, it is the case that the many of the connections of Advent with Christmas (i.e., the celebration of the birth of Jesus and God’s Incarnation) are quite late, being concretized as tradition only in the Middle Ages.
We find another kind of Advent waiting when we look to the early traditions of Christianity.
As early as the fourth century ce, Advent was a six-week period of preparation, beginning from St. Martin’s Day (Nov 11), for candidates who would be baptized at Epiphany (January 6). Marked by prayer, fasting, and penitence, it was comparable to the season of Lent. In sixth century ce Gaul (i.e., France), connections began to be made between this period and Christmas, with fasts being ordered in the days leading up to Christmas. The preparations and observances—the waiting—of Advent during this time centered more on Christ’s return rather than Christ’s birth.
The word “Advent” stems from the Latin adventus, which means “coming” or “arrival,” translating the Greek parousía. The Greek term denotes a state of being present. Since one’s presence is predicated by an arrival, adventus is an apt translation and conveys the anticipation inherent in the word. In documentation as early as the third century bce, parousía refers to an official visit of a king or dignitary. In the New Testament, parousía occurs twenty-four times, seventeen of which specifically refer to the arrival of Christ in glory and judgment, or Jesus’s Second Coming (Matt 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Cor 15:23; 1 Thess 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess 2:1, 8; Jas 5:7, 8; 2 Pet 1:16; 3:4, 12; 1 John 2:28). If only in terms of language, then, the season of Advent is about waiting for Christ’s return, Christ’s parousía.
Those Galileans staring up at the sky in Acts 1 may have been on the right track. In many ways, the scene in Acts marks the beginning of our own waiting. People of God, we are still waiting for Christ’s Advent.
But just as the messengers of God admonished the disciples for waiting idly for Christ’s parousía, we too must consider what to do while we wait. Looking to lectionary selections for this year (Year B, Revised Common Lectionary), the testamentary letter of 2 Peter may have some wisdom for us.
The author of 2 Peter addresses a community who had been awaiting Christ’s Advent for a long time. Unlike the lethargy or even aversion that many of us have when it comes to the Second Coming, the Christians to whom the author writes have grown impatient … and frustrated. Understandable, perhaps, as even Jesus had said “this generation won’t pass away until all these things happen” (Matt 24:34). The author of 2 Peter addresses their concerns, assuring them that God’s word can be trusted (2 Pet 3:5, 7) even as we cannot know the specifics (vv. 8–10).
The passage is filled with descriptions of cosmic destruction that are typical of apocalyptic literature. These images of “fire” and “flames” (vv. 7, 10., 12) and “dreadful noises” (v. 10) focus attention not only on the end of the physical universe but also toward the imminent Advent of a savior figure.
More to the point, the language is likely rhetorical more than it is literal. They highlight the themes of judgement and repentance, and nudge the reader toward ethical and moral living. The author says, when the Advent of Christ finally occurs and when the elements of earth pass away, all that will remain will be our hearts and our works: our hope, our faith, our love, and the actions which arise from them. So, the author writes, “what sort of people ought we to be?”
At Christ’s Advent, God’s promise comes to fruition: “a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (v. 13). The Greek word “righteousness” (Gk. dikaiosúne) has both moral and ethical implications: not only must our principles seek what is good or “right,” so too must our actions reflect those principles. A better translation for dikaiosúne here might be “justice.”
The author of 2 Peter, for all of his doomsday talk, is sending a clear message for those who wait for Christ: get busy (v. 14). Get busy not only for the sake of your own soul, but for the sake of the world—for the sake of a new heaven and a new earth.
As we ready our hearts, homes, and churches this Advent season to celebrate the first advent of Christ, as we renew our faith in the Christ that dwells with us now, let us also prepare for Christ’s second advent.
This Advent season, what if, instead of waiting, we got busy? What if we could have a part in bringing that place, that time—“where righteousness is at home”—to fruition? What if we could live lives that hasten such a world of peace and justice into reality?
This year, more than ever, we need that peace, that justice. Our world has had a challenging year, a year that has tested our faith in God and in humanity. Our faults have been laid bare. Now, more than ever, we must work with God to bring about a new heaven and a new earth. Come, Lord Jesus, Come.
People of God, what are you waiting for?