The Coming of the Son of Man
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
This is the first Sunday of Advent, and the first Sunday of the church liturgical year. This is the time when we all look forward to Christmas, the unique coming to earth of God, to live as Jesus in human history.
But what a strange passage, set exactly in the middle of the passion narrative in the gospel of Mark. It’s more Lent than Advent you would think. We are not expecting to hear a text like this when we are busy getting ready for Christmas. Our shopping and parties and rushing around have no place for this kind of imagery. People want to hear “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” not “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven (13:24-25).
What is this saying to us ? Just as we asked last week what Christ the King meant to us, so we must ask, what is Advent? Advent means “arrival” or “coming” , but the arrival of who, or what, and why ? When we reflect honestly, we need to admit that, all too easily, Advent can disintegrate into a number of things :
(i) A race against deadlines : sending cards, decorating, buying, or arranging more worthy things like carol services. There is no real exploration of something as profound as God becoming man. All too often it is January 2nd before we know it, the deadlines have ruled out the reflection, and much, if not all, is lost. Advent is not a race against time.
(ii) Advent as a mere countdown to Christmas ; how many sleeps are left, shopping says are left, working days left, opening the calendar doors one day at a time, and wishing the time away. Advent is not a countdown either; it is a season in itself, a time of preparedness and reflection. Why ? To ensure that we are a part of God’s ongoing work of redemption, now.
(iii) Mere Commemoration – this is a more subtle danger , a simple act looking back so that even if we do think of Christ, it becomes a nostalgic look back at a past event, shrouded in mystery and story, perhaps to take comfort against present day fears, or those for the future. Commemoration becomes escapism perhaps, which is even worse.
So it can seem very odd, perhaps even artificial. All too easily we pretend to look forward to Christ’s coming when we know he has come already. Well that is partly true of course. We believe God became particular ; he became not “everyman“, but a particular man; he came not everywhere, but somewhere, in Bethlehem in Judea ; and more than that, in a particular time, under the rule of Roman emperors and governors, of Herod the King. His coming is grounded in history, just as our own lives are.
In doing this, God kept his promise, the promise to the patriarchs, to David, and the prophets. Dwell on the wonder of the fact that God came to be exactly like you – “Pleased as man with man to dwell – Jesus our Emmanuel” is a statement of profound theological truth, it just a line in a carol.
But that historical reality doesn’t mean Advent is “make believe”. It is not a nostalgic pageant, it has one eye o the future, based on the faithfulness of God’s past. The coming of God continues all the time. We are a perpetual Advent people. We now carry the same expectation and hope that they did. We celebrate Advent because it tells of God’s promise, and the fact that it was fulfilled.
The passage speaks of the passing of sun, moon and stars. What on earth does that mean? It could be a literal statement, though that seems unlikely.
As elsewhere in the Bible, sun moon and stars are often used figuratively in the bible to designate powers and systems of the world – empires, kingdoms, and rulers. What the bible writers are saying is that there is no great power in the universe that is not created or subject to God. It is illustrated in the historical setting of the nativity – under Augustus and under Herod, subject to the rule of God.
So here, Jesus us saying this. The old systems, the old kingdoms are falling away so that God’s kingdom, with all of the power of Christ’s love can come in its place. This rebuilding is taking place now and we are a part of it. We are not idly standing in the airport waiting for someone to arrive holding a nameplate in our hands that reads “Jesus”, but living as citizens of the kingdom of God.
So Be Ready
If we are not ’on duty’ in the service of the Kingdom now, then Advent, and Christmas, diminish into a fairy story. We are called to look past the romance. The first Christmas was a scene of poverty in a land under military occupation in which human life was so cheap that babies could be killed without mercy. Today, Christmas will also be a most difficult time for many people, acute global economic and social challenges, and welfare systems in retreat. More and more people are thrown back on their own resources without a safety net. We must be there for others and in that obedience, we do it unto him, the coming King. We make ready for the future by faithfully attending the present.
An apocryphal story makes the point. Two hundred and twenty years ago the Connecticut House of Representatives met on a bright sunny day in May. suddenly, in the middle of debate, the day turned to night. Clouds covered the sun, and everything turned to darkness. Some legislators thought it was the Second Coming, a panic ensued and some people wanted to adjourn. People wanted to pray, to prepare for the coming of the Lord. However the speaker of the House, who was a Christian believer rose to his feet. ‘We are all upset by the darkness’, he said, ‘and some of us are afraid. But, the Day of the Lord is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. And if the Lord is returning, I, for one, choose to be found doing my duty. I therefore ask that candles be brought. At which the men who expected Jesus went back to their desks and resumed their debate.
So this year as you celebrate, make space for reflection about what the first advent means ; stay vigilant for the second advent ; and take advantage of every opportunity to bless others – that way you will be ready when the time comes.
Finally, take comfort in this. Hear the closing promise of Jesus, the Son of Man, in light of all that has been said in this marvelous Advent text: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (13:31). And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (13:37).