By John Bauerschmidt
One of the great themes of Advent is the Lord’s coming in glory at the end of time: the “Second Coming.” In modern lectionaries, the four-Sunday Advent season immediately before Christmas is part of a wider thematic movement that begins even earlier, as the Church year comes to a close. Prayers and readings at the end of “the green season” start to reflect the theme of Christ’s coming again, and this movement comes to something of a climax with the First Sunday of Advent. The same theme continues until Christmas Eve. There are indications in the older lectionaries that an emphasis on “the last things” or eschaton, at the end of the liturgical year, pre-dated the establishment of Advent, and helped to color it.
Anglicans, in their traditional and modern liturgies, are the inheritors of this emphasis. The collect for Advent Sunday is a typical example. Composed by Thomas Cranmer for the 1549 prayer book, it drew upon Romans 13 (the epistle reading for the day) in a memorable prayer that lends its majestic weight to the season:
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever.
A focus on the last things, on what lies ahead in God’s providence, is the key to a proper, Christian theological orientation. Without a view of the horizon, we become theologically and spiritually disoriented. We lose our place in the narrative as the ending is eclipsed. Not only do we lose the thread of the story, but we lose a sense of ourselves and our own role as actors. Critical tension is lost; urgency evaporates if we forget that God, from our time-bound perspective, is always about to wrap things up, and that our own time of action lies at hand.
Advent, with its emphasis on the Lord’s coming again, reminds us that Christian worship itself is always set against this horizon. St. Paul’s account of the Last Supper, that which “he received from the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:23), concludes with “For as often as you eat the bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). The eucharistic action of proclamation and remembrance, in this perspective, is oriented to the future action of God in Christ.
Cranmer perpetuated this Pauline emphasis by incorporating an allusion to this account in his 1549 Canon of the Mass, in the introduction to the institution narrative: “and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us, to celebrate a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again.” A form of this same introduction continues to set the stage in the prayer of consecration codified in 1662, and in the traditional language eucharistic prayers of the 1979 prayer book.
The most significant liturgical articulation of the Lord’s return, however, occurs in the part of the eucharistic prayer known as the anamnesis, or remembrance, that follows the institution narrative. Some ancient eucharistic prayers, including the form found in the Apostolic Constitutions, incorporate this coming again as one of the events “remembered” by the Church in worship. The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, for instance, makes this prayer of offering following the institution narrative: “Bearing in remembrance, therefore, this commandment of salvation, and all those things which came to pass for us; the Cross, the Grave, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into Heaven, the Sitting on the right hand, the Second and glorious Coming-again, thine own, of thine own, we offer unto thee, in behalf of all, and for all…”
Other prayers, both ancient and modern, vary the verb used to describe Christ’s return. The late Geoffrey Wainwright suggested, in his work Eucharist and Eschatology, that the variation may arise from hesitancy in describing the Second Coming as something “remembered” by the Church now as it celebrates the Eucharist (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981, 63). This is the case with Eucharistic Prayer D in the 1979 prayer book:
Recalling Christ’s death and his descent among the dead, proclaiming his resurrection and ascension to your right hand, awaiting his coming in glory; and offering to you, from the gifts you have given us, this bread and this cup, we praise you and we bless you.
Other eucharistic prayers in the 1979 book follow this same pattern of varying the verb used to describe the second coming, placing it either in a future tense (“Christ will come again”) or making the return something that is only anticipated in the worship of the Church.
Wainwright offers an apologia for the use of the word “remembrance” in connection with Christ’s coming in glory, the main point of which is the need to keep in view what the act of eucharistic remembrance is all about. In essence, it is not so much a casting back of the mind into the past to imagine what has already taken place; rather, it is a recalling in the present both of what has taken place and will take place. “It is Christ Himself who is commemorated, and Christ is not only clothed with all that He did at His first coming but is also the one who is to come again” (67). Wainwright adds that at the Eucharist, the Church is praying for Christ to come now, in his glory; and when he comes in his real presence it is but the foretaste of a future yet to come.
In this sense, we ought to remember the future: be mindful of it, and conscious of the ways in which it breaks out here and now. It is, after all, the reality that is moving inexorably into the present. The past is downstream, while the present moment disappears as quickly as we identify it. Advent gives opportunity to recall that the Lord’s return in glory is the ever-present reality that both undergirds and interrupts the present world. God’s future is advancing into our midst! Human beings cannot live in the future because it is only ordered in God’s providence. We can, however, anticipate it in our worship and our action in the present, as we remember all that Christ does for us.