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The Helpful Tension of Advent Expectation
by Carl E. Olson
Advent is all about coming to a particular place and time.
The word "advent" comes from a Latin word meaning "to come
to," used in ancient Rome to describe the arrival of the emperor.
During Advent, guided by the liturgy, we look back to when God came into
the world at the Incarnation. We also look forward in time to the Parousia,
the final coming of the God-man when He will judge the living and the
dead, and the world as we know it will pass away. And, in between these
two cosmic events, we come face-to-face with ourselves, examining our
hearts and preparing them for the celebration of the great feast of Christmas
(cf. CCC 524).
Recently, in preparing a talk on the Eucharist as the eschatological sacrament,
I was struck by a passage from Pope John Paul IIs encyclical, Ecclesia
de Eucharistia ("On the Eucharist in Its Relationship to the
Describing the relationship between the Eucharist and the blessed hope
of the Parousia of Jesus Christ, the Holy Father writes, "The Eucharist
is a straining towards the goal, a foretaste of the fullness of joy promised
by Christ (cf. Jn. 15:11); it is in some way the anticipation of heaven,
the pledge of future glory" (par. 18). He then states,
"The eschatological tension kindled by the Eucharist expresses and
reinforces our communion with the Church in heaven" (par. 19).
Chances are you havent heard the phrase "eschatological tension"
used too often, whether at the water cooler or even at Mass. But when
we consider what it means to be a follower of Christ and a member of the
pilgrim Church, we recognize that we do live with and in tension. That
tension exists because we live in temporal history between the "already
accomplished"the Incarnationand the "yet to be completed"the
Parousia and fullness of the Kingdom. While yet on earth, we live with
the knowledge that we are meant for heaven. We understand that we are
spiritual and material. We know that we are sinful and saved.
We recognize that we are dying and graced with eternal life.
Advent is a wonderful time to contemplate this fact and to ask ourselves
if there should be more of this tension in our lives. I have to
admit that I am often a bit too comfortable with being earthly, material,
and sinful. I know that I sometimes shy away from looking to heaven, of
becoming more Spirit-filled, and of working out my salvation with fear
and trembling (cf. Phil. 2:12).
Despite my personal interest in the "end times," I prefer to
ponder the quiet mysteries of the Nativity and shy away from the future,
earth-shattering wonder of the Parousia, when the quiet babe of Bethlehem
will be revealed as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. But the two cannot
be separated. Without the first coming, there is no second coming; without
the second coming, the first remains incomplete. The swaddling clothes
must give way to brilliant robes. The donkey will step aside for the thundering
Many Christians who contemplate the end of time become obsessed with bloody
scenarios and violent visions. The success of the Left Behind books
indicates that some readers are looking to escape the eschatological tension,
hoping to flee from the clutches of earth and the mortal life. But for
Catholics, escape is not a consideration; the Cross is not optional. However,
the tension of living in the present is not a reason for despair, but
John Paul II writes, "A significant consequence of the eschatological
tension inherent in the Eucharist is also the fact that it spurs us on
our journey through history and plants a seed of living hope in our daily
commitment to the work before us. Certainly the Christian vision leads
to the expectation of new heavens and a new earth
(Rev. 21:1), but this increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility
for the world today." (par. 20).
The good news is that the King didnt just come two thousand years
agoHe comes to us each time we receive Holy Communion. And He comes
during Advent, preparing our hearts for Christmas. "Amen. Come, Lord
This column originally appeared in the November
24, 2003 issue of National
Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is the co-author of The
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author
Catholics Be "Left Behind"?
He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland,
Oregon and Sacramento, California.
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