Ps 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6
Phil 1:4-6, 8-11
"There are three distinct comings of the Lord of which I know," wrote
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the great twelfth-century doctor of the
Church, in one of his Advent sermons, "his coming to people, his coming
into people, and his coming against people."
added that Christ's "coming to people and his coming against
people are too well known to need elucidation." Since, however,
today's Gospel reading mentions both groupsthose Christ comes to
and those he comes againsta bit of elucidation is in order.
Luke took pains to situate the fact of the Incarnation within human
history. He did so by providing the names of several different
rulers, beginning with Caesar Augustus (Lk. 2:1), who reigned from 27
B.C. to A.D. 14, and who was ruler of the Roman Empire when Jesus was
born. In today's Gospel, the Evangelist situates John the Baptist's
bold announcement of Christ's coming in the fifteenth year of
Tiberius Caesar. Tiberius, the stepson of Augustus, reigned from A.D.
14 to 37. Pontius Pilate was appointed procurator of Judea by
Tiberius in 26, and served in that post for ten years. Those men and
the others mentioned by St. LukeHerod, Philip, Lysanias, and the
high priests Annas and Caiaphasruled the known world while the
ruler of all creation walked the dusty roads of Palestine and
announced the kingdom of God was at hand.
The Roman rulers
were ruthless and often violent men who established rule and kept
order through military might and political power. They did, in fact,
establish and keep a sort of peacethe pax
lasted about two centuries (27 B.C. - c. A.D. 180). Yet that peace
was both uneasy and fragile; it had been won by the sword and often
relied on fear, intimidation, and persecution. St. Luke's mention of
these rulers was, on one hand, meant to support the historical nature
of his "orderly account," which was to be "a narrative
of the things which have been accomplished among us..." (see Lk.
But it was also meant to establish a deliberate
comparison and contrast between the rulers of this world and the
ruler of nations, between the kings of earthly realms and the King of
kings. The Roman rulers used force and relied upon fear, but the
Incarnate Word came with humility and love. Emperors were announced
and escorted by armed soldiers, but the birth of the Christ child was
announced by heavenly hosts offering songs of praise, not swords or
spears. "What the angel proposes to the shepherds is another kyrios [Lord]," notes Fr. Robert Barron in The
Priority of Christ (Brazos, 2007), "the Messiah Jesus, whose rule will constitute a
true justice because it is conditioned not by fear but by love and
The Lord came against injustice, fear,
violence, and death, and would himself experience each of those
dreadful realities for the sake of all men. Such would be "the
salvation of God" spoken of John the Baptist, who quoted from
Isaiah's beautiful and moving hymn-like reflection on the glory and
goodness of God (Isa. 40). John, like Isaiah, was pointing toward the
comfort, peace, and joy that only God can give.
Yet the final
rest and joy is not yet fully known. We live, St. Bernard explained,
during the time of the "third coming" of Christ, between
the Incarnation and the final coming, or advent, when all men will
finally see the pierced but glorious Lord. "The intermediate
coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within
their own selves, and they are saved." Christ comes to us in
spirit and in power; he most especially comes to us under the
appearance of bread and wine.
"Because this coming lies
between the other two," wrote St. Bernard, "it is like a
road on which we travel from the first coming to the last." That
winding road is the way of the Lord, the path of Advent.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the December 6, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)