The call to “Watch” is a common theme at the beginning of Advent. Many Christians interpret this mostly in futuristic terms. Some are caught up in the violent apocalyptic sensationalism reflected in the Left Behind series of books. But many who pay little attention to prophetic calendars still believe that this present age will end with some sort of spectacular intervention or return of Christ.
Many, if not most, of the early Christians believed the present age would end in their lifetime. The Apostle Paul, from what we can deduce from his letters, almost certainly believed this (see 1 Thess 4:13–18 and 1 Cor 7:28–31). Scholars debate about what Jesus may have believed about the “when” and the “how” of the realization of God’s kingdom on earth.
The semi-technical word that the early Christians used to refer to the future revelation of Christ that would end the present age and usher in an age of peace and righteousness was the Greek word parousia. It is usually translated “coming.” For example, in 1 Thessalonians Paul prays that the church will be blameless before God at the “coming” (parousia) of the Lord Jesus Christ (3:13). The root meaning of the word is actually “presence,” and could be so translated in some contexts.
While many Christians today still believe in some sort of miraculous second coming of Christ, there is a minority (but growing number) of Christians who imagine this differently. They imagine not a sudden invasion from outside the world, but a growing manifestation or unveiling of the presence of Christ from within the world.
Christ is, indeed, present in the world, according to all the New Testament witnesses. The living Christ is present with us in Spirit. The Holy Spirit is, for Christians, the presence of the living Christ.
Frankly, I’m not sure what I believe about a future coming of Christ, or even how to imagine it. But I certainly believe in the living presence of Christ in the world. Therefore, the call to “Watch” takes on present significance.
At the end of Mark’s Gospel, the women who enter the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus encounter a young man dressed in white. He says, “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, has been raised. He is not here.” He instructs them to go tell Peter and the other disciples that the risen Christ will meet them in
Galilee. Galilee is where it all started. It’s where they left their fishing nets, their occupations, even their families to follow Jesus. But when Jesus was arrested by the powers-that-be they fled. They denied and deserted him. Now the young man tells them that Jesus would meet them again in Galilee. And meet him they did. There they encountered a kind of “second coming.” There they experienced forgiveness. There they were given a new mission. There they encountered the unconditional love of the risen Christ.
Christ may or may not return in a cloud of glory. From one point of view, Christ doesn’t need to return, because Christ is already here. We can meet him. We can experience his forgiveness and unconditional love. We can participate with him in the work of the Spirit in the world. It’s possible for Christ to be born anew in our hearts this Christmas season. Christ is with us, among us, for us, and in us.
Therefore, let us watch, let us stay awake and alert, mindful and faithful to the way of Christ. In colonial
New England, I am told, a meeting of state legislators was plunged into darkness by a sudden eclipse. Some panicked and wanted to adjourn. Some thought the world was coming to an end. But one calm gentleman spoke up: “Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move that candles be brought.”
I think the living Christ would say to us: “Keep lighting the candles. Keep watching, keep praying, keep serving, keep loving.”
Come, Lord Jesus, convict us, challenge us, comfort us, and compel us to love others as you love each one of us.