The season of Advent plays with time. On the one hand, Advent clearly orients us toward time past: the birth of Jesus. The culture around us feeds into this aspect of Advent, for soon after Thanksgiving lights go up on homes, nativity scenes appear in yards and various other places. One even sees “Happy Birthday Jesus” signs emblazoned in lights across a lawn. Advent points us toward the birth of Christ in time long past, a time of humility.
But Advent also affirms time to come, a future coming of Christ. It builds on the eucharistic affirmation, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Advent hymns often combine this triumphant second coming with a more personal eschatology of finally meeting the Christ when we die; Advent points to a future, a time of glory.
However, the strongest advent text in the gospels refers not to the past and its humility, nor to the future and its glory, but to the present in which both humility and glory are conflated. I refer to Matthew 25, that incredible scene just before the passion narrative where Jesus speaks of his coming again in glory by describing scenes of utmost humility: hunger, thirst, estrangement, nakedness, sickness, imprisonment. These conditions, so far removed from what we regard as in any way glorious, are given as the actual presence of the King. To the disciples astonished protest of “when did we see you thus and help you” Christ as King answers, ‘truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers [and sisters] of mine, you did it to me.”
When this text is read in the context of Advent, then we must alter our expectations of what the second coming is all about and what glory is all about. Whatever the future may hold, the second coming is in present time, and it is not simply a second coming, but a third and a fourth and a fifth and a sixth, nigh onto infinity, for the text suggests that Christ comes to us in each and every person who experiences suffering, in each and every generation, throughout all the ages.
Furthermore, this text refuses a definition of “glory” as having all the trappings of what humans have called majesty and power; it refuses to elevate a “King” to heights beyond all human suffering. Indeed, this is a primary “process” text in its redefinition of glory and kingly power into a kind of universal co-presence that encompasses all suffering, calling us all to address those who suffer with compassion, care, and our own presence. Glory and humility intertwine, becoming indistinguishable, and Christ the King is everywhere. Advent as time past in the birth of Christ and time future as the coming of Christ intertwine; the coming of Christ is here, now. Who knew that “glory” was so close at hand! Advent is always.