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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 II’s encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia ("On the Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church").

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 haven’t 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 Incarnation–and 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 white horse.

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 for hope.

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 didn’t just come two thousand years ago–He comes to us each time we receive Holy Communion. And He comes during Advent, preparing our hearts for Christmas. "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!"

This column originally appeared in the November 24, 2003 issue of National Catholic Register.

Carl Olson is the editor of

He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will 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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