Preparing for the Son of Man
Guest Essay by Ron Hansen
Note: For this first Sunday in Advent, we’re pleased to republish a guest essay from our archives, written by Ron Hansen. (Debie Thomas will return with a lectionary essay next week). Ron’s many books include Exiles (2008) and A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion (2011). Among his many honors are a Guggenheim Foundation grant, an Award in Literature from the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters, two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a three-year fellowship from the Lyndhurst Foundation. He is currently the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University, where he earned an M.A. in Spirituality in 1995.
There’s an old joke about a gruff Army sergeant who after roll call would pass along important news. Reading aloud several items, he then said, “Oh, Private Manion? Your folks’ house burned down last night.” The brutality of the announcement shocked not only Private Manion himself but also the company commander, and later the captain took the sergeant aside and counseled him to be more diplomatic and less abrupt when he talked about such personal things.
After the next morning’s roll-call, the sergeant again read out some new information, but then he paused and looked at his soldiers and said, “Everyone whose mother is still alive, take one step forward,” and then as the company of men started to take one step forward, the sergeant shouted, “Not so fast, Kawalski!”
We have a “not so fast” in our gospel today. In fact, at first glance, this year’s gospel for the first Sunday of Advent may seem off-putting. In this holiday season we expect to hear tidings of comfort and joy, and instead we hear Jesus foretelling future “distress among nations” and people fainting “from fear and foreboding.”
We do not have to look very far these days to find terror and threats and evil doings of every kind, and in his prophecy Jesus warns his disciples and Christians now to apply the same awareness and caution to the end times, just as we have been forced to do in our chaotic world.
Each liturgical year begins with four Sundays of hope and expectancy. In our deliberate forgetting we imagine that baby Jesus was not born over two thousand years ago so we can again be excited and overjoyed by the miracle of the Incarnation, or in the grandeur of the opening of the Fourth Gospel that, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.”
But not so fast — we simultaneously are urged to look forward to the calamities and dire straits that will presage the final coming of the Christ who calls himself in our passage today “the Son of Man.” And we live in the faith that even now Christ is present with us and active in even the most humdrum existences.
And just as the birth of the Messiah occurred in a surprising time and place, so, we are warned, his second coming could catch us sleeping, “weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.”
We are told in the gospel to be vigilant and expect the unexpected even while we are encouraged to be patient. We are told to wait for Christ’s return, not in fear and trembling, but in festive hope, for we have been affiliated with him in our baptisms. We will not be rejected.
It is Christ-among-us who makes us “increase and abound in love for one another,” as Saint Paul puts it in our second reading from his Letter to the Thessalonians. And so we continue to pray that Christ “so strengthens [our] hearts in holiness that [we] may be blameless … at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”
The final conversion of Saint Augustine had its origin in his accidental reading of that passage from Thessalonians. May its lesson also be a source of conversion for us as we await Christ’s coming at Christmastime and again at the end of the world.
Dan Clendenin: firstname.lastname@example.org
See here for our Journey with Jesus weekly webzine for the global church. All free, all the time.