Advent’s message for the past, present, and future

"Vision of St. Bernard with Sts. Benedict and John the Evangelist" by Fra Bartolomeo (1472–1517). Photo: Web Gallery of Art/Public Domain

The great medieval saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) famously said there are three ways of interpreting the Advent season. More specifically, the three ways of understanding the coming of Christ which the Advent season anticipates.

For while we look forward to commemorating the physical birth of Christ into this world, this time of year should also remind us of the omnipresence of Jesus in our lives, a reality which the season of Advent, in specifically looking toward the physical incarnation can unintentionally obscure. For the coming of Jesus is, much like God himself, threefold, divided into the fleshly, imminent, and glorious; one rooted in the past, one ever-present, and one yet to come in some distant future.

Advent naturally looks ahead to the Christmas season, where (aside from forgoing all dietary rules and indulging in the marvelous excesses of capitalism) we celebrate the birth of Christ. In that moment, the entire universe was set upon a new path, the salvation of the human race had dawned, and the folly of Adam forgiven by the sacrifice upon the cross. This is the first and most obvious interpretation of the coming of Christ: direct, physical, and immediate.

It is this physical, fleshly Jesus whom we shall then follow up through Easter, where his painful death and glorious resurrection will save mankind from death, despair, and sin. This is the Jesus we hear about every Sunday, personify in artwork, and visualize in our minds during times of difficulty. This is the primary manifestation of Jesus which Advent looks forward to, and rightly so. It was after all on a certain night in Bethlehem when the human race would be forever changed, and we should be eternally grateful for the mercy of Our Lord incarnate.

Yet we should not limit our understanding of Jesus to only this specific date, for doing so reduces Jesus to only a historical figure, whose life, death, and resurrection are merely anecdotes of history which slip ever further away from us with the progression of time. Rather, we should remember that Jesus, indeed the entirety of the triune God is ever with us, through time of joy and sadness, virtue and sin. God is always with us, and it is that presence which Advent celebrates.

For while the physical birth of Jesus might be tied to a particular place and time, the Holy Spirit dwells among us in perpetuity and always will. We should therefore use Advent as a time not only to celebrate the physical incarnation, but likewise reflect on the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives, how it has helped us through the year as well as the ways in which we have failed to act justly. We should consider the sins we have committed in the Lord’s omniscient presence, and seek to make amends in time to celebrate our memorial of the Incarnation.

Lastly, the Advent season is not only a time to look forward to the physical birth of Jesus, as well as to contemplate the Holy Spirit in our daily lives, but to consider the distant future and the final judgement. At the end of days, it will be our Savior who passes judgement upon us, deciding who pursued righteousness and who wallowed in the darkness of sin. But at the moment of Christ’s return, those who have led fruitful and faithful lives will behold him in his full glory while those who have squandered their lives shall face only darkness.

We should look ahead to this time, whenever it may be, with both anticipation as well as consideration for ourselves, to seek repentance for the sins we have committed, and to steel ourselves against the world’s ceaseless temptations. We should keep the end of days forever on our minds and use the season of Advent to consider what shall befall our souls on that fateful day.

During Advent, we should do our best to consider all three of these manifestations of Christ in our lives: the physical, the imminently present, and the glorious return in future days. For Advent is not only a season in which we look ahead, but encompasses the entirety of time itself, much like our God. No point in our lives is without him, and it would be best, in this season of preparation to consider how our lives have been spent in service to the Lord, and how we can better use the upcoming year to improve ourselves in anticipation of that final day.

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