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In Advent, we are called to prepare for the coming of Christ in three ways

What is this watchfulness that I am to develop in faith to prepare for the coming of Jesus? What are signs when this watchfulness separates me from Jesus rather than prepares me for his coming?

Detail from "David Foresees the Coming of Christ" (14th-century) by the Limbourg brothers. (WikiArt.org)

Everyone shall remember 2020 as a year of chaos and upheaval, both in the Church and the world. Recent current events have moved many people, especially Catholics, to look for answers that make sense of what is happening right now. Many have sought answers by seeking out the messages of various mystics, apparitions, prophecies, social media figures, and conspiracy theories that warn of the signs of the end of the world.

Some may ask, “Why address this at all? Is not this speculation leading to an unhealthy fear-mongering that upends peace and distracts from the gospel?” The Church, in her Advent liturgical prayer, responds with a prudential but a clear “No” to these questions. Towards the end of each liturgical year and also into the first two weeks of the Advent season, she asks us to reflect upon the second coming of Christ. In light of the start of the Advent season and recent current events, some questions to pray about are the following: What is this watchfulness that I am to develop in faith to prepare for the coming of Jesus? What are signs when this watchfulness separates me from Jesus rather than prepares me for his coming?

The season of Advent is when the Church calls us to prepare for the coming of Jesus in three ways. We reflect for the first two weeks of Advent on the second and final coming of Jesus in glory “when we will come to judge the living and the dead.” We then close out Advent by prayerfully preparing and remembering his first coming in humility at Christmas with his birth as a baby boy in the manger at Bethlehem, uniting our frail human nature with his glorious divine nature.

However, various saints throughout the Church’s history, such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux 1 and St. John of the Cross2 speak of a third and intermediate coming of Jesus between his first and second coming that we should also be focusing upon during the Advent season. This third coming is known as the coming of Jesus in mystery. It occurs in his Eucharistic presence, the silence of prayer, and in the joys and trials of the present moment of life with various people and events that I often overlook.

This first proper focus on the coming of Jesus in mystery then helps me to be watchful for both his coming at Christmas and at the end of time by allowing me to focus first on his presence with me here and now. We hear Jesus speak to us about this when he states, “Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning.” (Mk 13:35) This watchfulness enables me to see my response to the Lord and how the world is responding to him currently, and it allows me to be faithful to him despite the sins I struggle with or that others struggle with around me.

St. John Henry Newman speaks to us of this watchfulness as watching for Christ and watching with Christ:

He watches for Christ who has a sensitive, eager, apprehensive mind; who is awake, alive, quick-sighted, zealous in seeking and honoring him; who looks out for him and all that happens, and who would not be surprised, would not be over-agitated or overwhelmed, if he found that He was coming at once. And he watches with Christ, who, while he looks onto the future, looks back on the past, and does not so contemplate what his Savior has purchased for him, as to forget what He has suffered for him. He watches with Christ, who ever commemorates and renews in his own person Christ’s cross and agony, and gladly takes up that mantle of affliction which Christ wore here, and left behind Him when he ascended.3

In becoming too fixated on knowing when Jesus will come at the end of time while ignoring his coming in mystery in the present moment, I can lose peace and be tempted through intellectual pride to figure things out on my own. Moreover, an unhealthy fixation on the second coming of Christ to the neglect of his coming to me in the mystery of the present moment can lead me to be blind and vulnerable to false prophets (cf. Matt 7:15).

Obsession about knowing precise details of his Second Coming, to the neglect of being faithful to the grace of the moment, can lead both to intellectual pride and an unbridled zeal that can result in mistakes and errors. When left unchecked, these dispositions towards sin can cause me to replace the gospel of Jesus with the anti-gospel of sinful self-idolatry or trendy messages that undermine what Our Lord has said in public revelation and through the teachings of the Magisterium of his Church.4 Such dispositions can lead good people to buy into or promote a heretical understanding of mystical events or even false mystics themselves and thus distort or destroy faith.

An authentic watchfulness for the coming of Christ both in the present moment and looking toward his Second Coming has a guarded openness to the workings of grace. This watchfulness enables the individual believer to know how to cooperate with the action of the Holy Spirit in the current age of history in which I am alive. It also shows obedience to the constant teachings of the Church and her pastors in light of both mystical stirrings and current events.

Although some questions can exist in a gray area, one can find definitive common consensus in the Church’s teaching regarding the events of the second coming of Jesus in Sacred Scripture, the teachings of the popes, and the teachings of the ecumenical councils. This same common theological and prophetic consensus also can be found where the Church Fathers, Doctors, theological schools, approved mystics, and apparitions throughout the history of the Church agree on questions and issues of theology not formally defined by the Magisterium. 5

Our Lord reminds me that I am to be watchful of the signs of the times in light of his coming without burying my head in the sand. “Consider the fig tree and all the other trees. When their buds burst open, you see for yourselves and know that summer is now near; in the same way, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near” (Lk 21:29-31). I also am to be watchful against the dangers that sin can pose to us when drawn to the knowledge that puffs up and seeks to dominate through pride, the danger of disordered passions through the lust of the flesh, and the dangers of being fixated on earthly comforts and glories through the lust of the eyes (cf. 1 John 2:16).

These sins can and will deaden my watchfulness for the coming of Jesus, causing me to be distracted, neglectful, and self-absorbed by disordered desires for power, comfort, and pleasure. They ultimately hinder me from being faithful, cooperative, and fruitful to the coming of Jesus in the mystery of the grace of the moment, no matter if that moment is good or bad, peaceful or chaotic.

As our Lord reminds me, I will perish if I do not seek union with him through loving repentance and trust in his mercy and grace. He gives me this same warning just as he did to the crowds of his age. He gives this warning to all who seek to know the meaning of the deaths of people from natural disasters and the signs of the times, without accepting the gift of his salvation through faith, mercy, and repentance (cf. Matt 24-25; Lk 13:1-5).

This acknowledgment of the need for Jesus to come and save me is part of the great cry that the Church prays each Advent with the O Antiphons and the great hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. This prayer is a cry of repentance, of our need for salvation, and of loving longing for his presence in our current exile in this valley of tears. May the Blessed Virgin Mary help us to obtain that grace of faithful watchfulness for her son’s coming this Advent season so that he may find us with joyful hearts ready to receive him.

Endnotes:

1 Sermo 5, In Adventu Domini, 1-3: Opera Omnia, Edit. Cisterc. 4 {1966}, 188-190. Taken from the Office of Readings, Wednesday of the First Week of Advent, Liturgy of the Hours, Vol 1. ( New York, NY, Catholic Book Publishing Co, 1975).

2 John of the Cross speaks of this mystical coming of Jesus in terms of Spiritual Marriage between God and the Soul through the perfection of the prayer of mystical union. See Spiritual Canticle, 39, 3-4 Taken from The Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross (Washington DC, Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991).

3 Sermon 22 “Watchfulness”, Parochial and Plain Sermons, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1997) 940-941.

4 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Norms Regarding the Manner of Proceeding in the Discernment of Presumed Apparitions or Revelations (February 25, 1978). Also, see the treatment of John of the Cross on the proper interpretation of prophecy within scripture as contained in Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, Ch 19.9 &11 and Ch 22.3 & 5.

5 Pius IX, Tuas Libenter – Letter to the Archbishop of Munich-Freising, (December 21, 1863) Denzinger, 2879-2880; Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini – Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church (September 30, 2010) 14; Chad Ripperger, The Consensus of the Fathers and the Theologians (Sensus Traditionis Press, July 18, 2020); Edward O’Connor; Listen to My Prophets: Divine Mercy & Divine Justice, (Queenship Publishing, 2011) 189-190.


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About Fr. Matthew MacDonald 6 Articles
Fr. Matthew MacDonald is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. Ordained in 2014, he has an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville, as well as a Bachelors in Sacred Theology, Masters in Divinity, and Masters of Arts in Theology from Saint Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York. He is currently assigned as parochial vicar at Saint Mary’s Church in Washingtonville, New York.

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