Browsing The Northern Cross

Father Nick Nelson: Not one, not two, but the three comings of Christ

Advent comes from the Latin word “Adventus,” meaning the “coming” or “arrival.” The arrival of what or who? The arrival of a king. And for us, the arrival of “The King,” Jesus Christ. But if you pay attention to the prayers and readings during Advent, the focus isn’t only on the coming of Jesus as a baby, his birth at Bethlehem.

You’ll notice that the first week of Advent focuses on the “Second Coming” of Christ at the end of time. The Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent speaks of “signs” and “nations will be in dismay” and “people will die in fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world” and therefore we must be “vigilant at all times.” That doesn’t sound much like shepherds and mangers and baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes!

Father Nick Nelson
Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

So we have the two “advents”: Christ as a baby at Bethlehem and Christ at the end of time as King of the Universe.

And there is a third coming. This coming is the presence of Christ within our souls while we journey here on earth. This third coming comes after the first coming and prepares us for the second. St. Bernard of Clairvaux says:

“We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among men; he himself testifies that they saw him and hated him. In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty.”

This third coming, this hidden coming, is all about Christ coming to us through grace. And while this coming isn’t as visibly apparent as the first two comings, it is just as real. Grace is God’s very own divine life being shared with us. Grace is “Christlife” offered to us. Grace comes to us through prayer. Advent is the great season of watchful prayer or keeping vigil.

Yes, there is a penitential mood to Advent. That is why violet is the color for Advent, as it is for Lent. But Advent isn’t supposed to be a mini Lent. Lent’s focus is on penance and repentance, metanoia, a time of transformation. On the other hand, the focus and attitude of Advent is on keeping vigil, staying awake. The slogan for Advent is, “Advent is short. Stay awake for it!” Caribou Coffee’s marketing department should take advantage of this!

Advent is the great season for taking extra time to pray in adoration. Adoration is where and when we pray with Jesus exposed in the Eucharist. Most of our parishes have opportunities for this. I call this “keeping watch with Christ, for Christ.”

Advent is also the great season for praying in the dark, in the early mornings or late at night. It’s the idea that the Bridegroom is coming, the King is coming. He can arrive at any time, and I want to be awake for his arrival. Think of the five wise virgins from Matthew’s Gospel.

So the best prayer practice for Advent is the middle of the night holy hour, or that early or late hour of adoration. There is nothing better than being up in the middle of the night praying when everyone else is asleep. It’s one of the blessings of being a priest and living at the church!

The third coming of Christ also pertains to the sacraments. While we receive grace and meet Christ through prayer. The grace received and our encounter with Jesus is taken to a much higher level through the sacraments. If grace received through prayer is like going to the faucet for water, grace through the sacraments is like being at the bottom of Niagara Falls.

This is why it is essential to receive frequently the sacraments that we are able to receive frequently. We can only be baptized once, but we can and should go to confession at least monthly and we can receive Holy Communion even daily if we wish. The sacraments are true encounters with Jesus Christ. We meet Jesus in every sacrament, but especially in Holy Communion.

The third coming of Christ is essential to the life of a Christian. If we are used to Christ coming to us through prayer and keeping vigil but especially through receiving the sacraments, then we will be ready to first appreciate and remember his first coming, but second and more importantly, we will be ready and prepared for his second coming.

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of St. Mary, Cook; St. Martin, Tower; and Holy Cross, Orr. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome.