Liturgy is a repetitive cycle not just in terms of seasons, but in the day to day or week to week themes. If you are a regular church goer you may have noticed it because the Church centers her prayers/readings on the life of Jesus Christ, Who always had an underlying if not clear eschatological theme to His words. The Lord was always concerned for the soul and helping it find the gift of salvation, by repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Eschatology refers to the four last stages of the soul before and after this life. These four last things are death, judgment, heaven and hell. The world in general has lost its fear of God because it has ignored reflecting on these last intimidating realities.
Since each of us is here on this earth for a minuscule time compared to eternity, the Lord wasted no time in His ministry calling people to repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand. So, if the salvation of souls and the love of God is the primary message in the Gospel, it is a message that is timeless and pervasive throughout the liturgy as well.
As we approach the end of the liturgical year which falls in Ordinary Time, we celebrate the final Sunday with the Solemnity of Christ the King (this year on November 26th), which was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical, Quas Primas. The pope wanted to reaffirm that Christ had regal authority over the catholic church in the spiritual kingdom of God, but also to be a sign to all nations and states of the authority of Christ to teach all mankind, to make laws, to govern peoples, in all that pertains to their eternal salvation. So, it was instituted at a time when anti-clericalism was at its highest and many states and nations had rejected the authority of Christ. It was Pope XI’s second encyclical to address this issue. In his previous encyclical Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio, the pope addressed the many evils that resulted from and remained in the hearts of men after the First Great War. He explained how legislation was passed that did not recognize God or Jesus Christ as having any authority over marriages and “added to all this, God and Jesus Christ, as well as His doctrines, were banished from the school. As a sad but inevitable consequence, the school became not only secular and non-religious but openly atheistic and anti-religious.” As is the problem today the church then seemed to be aware of the tensions among nations and the rebellion of individuals and states against the authority of Christ in the spiritual kingdom. This rebellion had produced deplorable consequences. As is noted today and can be seen in the ways our laws are being enforced and written, that if civil law does not originate from Divine Law it has no firm basis and abiding principle to hold society together. In addition, the social media arena, the film industry and sensational news reporting is eroding our religious sense of God and the authority of Christ.
So, the origin of the solemnity of Christ the King not only corresponds to the end of the kerygma, the preaching of the Gospel, but it reminds us all of Who is our Judge and true authority to be obeyed even on earth against a background of anti-religious backlash and re-emergence of hate groups. For true Christians believe that Christ should reign as King of all hearts, minds and wills. His authority though veiled by His first coming as a humble servant, is emphatically manifested as Savior and King at His second coming.
As this Ordinary time, the last day of the church calendar year, ends it transitions immediately to the Season of Advent which ironically in the first two Sundays reminds us of the second coming of Christ. It is a rather stark beginning to the Advent season as the end of the liturgical year is a perfect segue for the continuing theme in Advent of preparing for that great day of Judgment. Be prepared, repent for the Lord is approaching and the earth trembles from chaos. In a sense, we are beginning the season with a slightly nuanced approach to the ending of the previous liturgical season. In Advent, we are reminded of our mortality that Christ will come as judge and we must prepare our souls to meet Him. For death comes to us all and then judgment and instantly we know our reward or punishment. Our consciences will be revealed! We will know wholeheartedly in our nakedness before God if we are children of the eternal light or eternal darkness. We either lived for God and His kingdom or we lived for ourselves retaining the sensuous nature that we were called to overcome and put to death.
Even the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, has a theme of the elect in the first reading from Is 35: 9, “Those whom the LORD has ransomed” (also Lk 13:24, Mt 7:14 etc.). This is reflected in the Institution Narrative of the Eucharistic Prayers over the wine, “which will be poured out for you and for many”. God cannot ransom all, although God desires the salvation of all, many choose to reject it. Yet, as the more silent season continues the spirit of joy begins to emerge as the prophecies of the Messiah are fulfilled in the miracles of Jesus. Those who are ransomed are to rejoice with joy and gladness for mourning and sorrow will flee.
Then the fourth Sunday of Advent reminds us of the birth of the Messiah and how blessed are the chosen to rejoice in the great time altering event that “God is with us!” This concluding and beautifully reflective time helps us to prioritize our values which then culminates in excessive joy and jubilation on Christmas, the liturgical birthday of the Lord.
Despite the intolerance of the white supremacists, white nationalists and other right-wing groups hatred toward other races, in general the global tolerance of the world has increased among most nations and races, except in those war torn third world countries where there is so much internal strife and conflict. Yet the world seems to have grown more intolerant of religion, but it has also as a whole realized that no people of any race, creed or color is greater than any other.
From the creation of the Solemnity of Christ the King in the early 20th century until now what Pope Pius XI predicted has morphed into a more dangerous scenario. Not only do we still have to fight against the atheist groups shutting down religious symbols in our town buildings and schools, but we have a segment that is apathetic and indifferent to sin or ethics and yet a segment of society that is very hungry for the spiritual. Religious institutions are dwindling at a great rate. We have seen hatred devour people to insane levels who in a mad, but well-intentioned act of hatred attack individuals at random, consumed by the ideology of evil terrorist groups such as ISIS, Hamas and Al-Qaeda. The world is threatened in unprecedented ways by these terrorist groups that permeate people’s thoughts through social medial. Hatred spreads hatred and the enemy is prowling around at large causing destruction of loss of life and souls. He is always looking to spread hate.
Yet, despite the constant battle of the secular world towards the sacred, the Church continues to stand strong and promulgate the message of Christ in the wonderful season of Advent which is marked by hope as well as awareness of the coming of Christ as King and Judge. The last two Sundays in Advent remind us of the first coming of Christ as a child.
There is something wonderful about the season of Advent. It is not only a season of expectation, but it is a season that more than any other resonates with our humanity. The mystery of the Incarnation as marvelous and incomprehensible as it is, replenishes the Christian with a silent nostalgic awareness that a child is about to be born. Every human family that prepares for their coming child becomes excited and feels the anticipation build up as they contemplate all the blessings that will follow. Most families prepare by fixing up a bedroom, throwing a baby shower, gathering infant clothes, or learning what infants will need. The message goes out about the expected date of birth so family and friends share in the couple’s joy. The time of planning for this event for a couple is so full of hope, joy and sometimes exuberant, but also meek expectations. They know that this child is going to bring a significant positive change to their family for they will now have a living sign that their love is fruitful and now enhanced by another unique human being that will look like them. Just about every soul on earth has some sort of an experience either directly or indirectly through friends or relatives of this exciting period of receiving a new born in their life.
That is the beautiful ambiance of the Advent season. It is a slightly different to the other seasons in that it starts out austere (little Lent) and then moves to a more joyful time because of the first coming of our Lord, but the season is in Winter with shorter and cooler days. These longer nights again add to the ambiance of silence and reflection. As the Church anticipates in the anamnesis of the birth of Christ in a more prophetic remembrance it also culminates in the wonderful gift of life, divine life: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. What a time to reflect on such a great mystery! God experiencing our world, humbly entering our weakness and dependence is a powerful event in time. The Incarnation of Jesus in the womb of Mary is a wonderful icon of the beauty of Advent. God dwelling in a woman’s body while the Son of God is always aware of His divinity, His human nature and mind is just beginning life. The Advent season is a quiet time, a reflective time. Although the child to be born is our King and yes, our Judge, He is also one of us and sensitive to all the weakness in our human nature except His perfect obedience to His Father permits Him from rejecting disobedience and so He remains sinless. His innocence is remarkable in that He is tempted in every way that we are and knowing the outcome of each choice, He instinctively chooses the good. So, we have a savior who understands us and as we contemplate His innocence and beauty as a child, we also look to His future adulthood which His light will shine brightly as the Way, the Truth and the Life. What a gift! What a paradox! A child is born to spread love and goodness in a world growing in darkness and destruction. A child born to be adored and who forever is adoring us. Following Christ during this Advent season can be such a deeply rejuvenating experience for our own transformation to greater love, healing and goodness. It is a season to anticipate the rebirth of Christ in our own hearts where we carry Him like Mary did. She was in the season of Advent in an acute way during her pregnancy. We experience Advent in our soul when we thirst for His coming and redemption while praying for our internal peace and praying that the world will accept that peace.
I would just encourage all those who have been away from the Church to come back to experience the beauty of worshipping God and contemplating His perfection while realizing our inherent dignity. For we are made in the image and likeness of God and so we are good. We are given the power to become better or worse, it is by nature an unwieldy power causing us to tremble at times. Making Christ the King of our hearts will drive out fear and empower us to love as God loves which Jesus desired would spread like fire on this earth. For the birth of Christ is the revelation that God desires us to be regenerated into Himself through the ultimate sacrifice of His Son. There is so much to thank God for and so much to rejoice in only if we dare to embrace this wonderful season with great hope and trust in God’s perfect plan for ourselves. He will come again and our time on this earth is limited to how many chances are parceled out to us to seek God and battle to become another Christ. So, God has entered our fragile world and forever will be our Redeemer and our most understanding Father if we but call out to Him and follow Him. He is waiting, how shall we respond? Will we commit or let the grace and pearls of great price slip through our grasp?
Father John Connors lives in Philadelphia. PA with his wife and family. He is the Associate Priest at Saint Miriam Parish and Friary.