The First Sunday in Advent demarcates significant transition. Parishioners should sense that something momentous is afoot and this momentousness consists of the double helix of time and presence. It is the preacher’s responsibility to bring their auditors into that contemplative space which says, “We are one step closer to the coming of Christ. Fulfillment is at hand because the One who fills all things has come, comes, and will come again.”
Sermons during this season should signal notes of fulfillment already but also fulfillment to come, all hinging on presence, time and presence. Indeed, prominent in considerations of fulfillment will be the dual themes of presence and time, present in time — the real “in-flesh” presence of God with us and for us. So, Advent, when sounding the presence of the King, cannot but connote elements of law, of accountability, of preparedness, for the King comes with power, authority, and justice. The King adjudicates accounts. But the point of Advent is good news, good news for those who are in Christ Jesus for there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). The divine in-flesh presence is for our salvation and constitutes the substance of divine self-giving. There is no Advent without in-fleshment, incarnation, be it then, now, or the Last Day.
The Advent of the Christ has occurred. The Son of God was born of the virgin Mary. Yet, that Advent has ongoing and climatic elements. All three time referents hinge on the presence of Christ Jesus, such that is captured in the liturgical Memorial Acclamation: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Once more, the theme is the presence, activity, and accomplishments of the Lord Jesus. “Christ has died” encapsulates the climax of the first Advent. The birth, life, and death of Jesus accomplished salvation — here we have the first fulfillment. “Christ is risen” sets forth not only the resurrection but also the pledged and ongoing presence of Christ in the Eucharist, hence the Memorial Acclamation’s conspicuous placement within the Eucharistic liturgy. Recalling the fulfillment of the Passover Haggadah on the cross whereby Christ’s shed blood coupled with drinking the last cup of the “fruit of vine” constitutes or “finishes” (John 19:30) the transference from the old into the new Covenant, Christ rises to be truly present for His people as the once-crucified-now-resurrected Bread of Life/Drink of God. “Christ is risen” heralds the ongoing act of His self-giving in Holy Communion as the fulfillment of the promise, “Surely I will be with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Lastly, “Christ will come again” jolts the Church to own the fact that this current state of affairs has a terminal point, and it is ever upon us. Consequently, the Advents of Christ (past, present, and future) elicit faith in the Word of Christ, confirmed by His presence. He has come. He comes. And He shall come again. Now, therefore, is the time of faith. Now is the time for faithfulness.
He has come. He comes. And He shall come again. Now, therefore, is the time of faith. Now is the time for faithfulness.
The First Sunday in Advent is not merely the start of Advent but also the Church Year. The Church Year, however, has a shape: It is more like a circle than a straight line. The cycle of the seasons of the Church’s Year repeats as we move through time in celebration of or in greater dependence upon the grace of God. The season of Advent stresses our need to be renewed by that grace as we focus especially on the three comings of our Lord — born of Mary, borne of bread and wine, borne upon the clouds. That is what the word “Advent” means, of course. Advent is “coming” and the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church has rightly and, therefore, traditionally celebrated these various “comings” of the Lord Jesus Christ in Advent.
Consequently, Advent presents an ideal opportunity for preachers to engage the imagination of twenty-first century auditors, weaning them from postmodernity’s post-Christian “social imaginary,” in which the presence of God has been entirely ruled out. What is more, Advent presents a deeply and honestly biblical framework for those believers who affirm the presence of God in Christ to actually find Him where and how He said He would be present — in the pure preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments administered according to the Gospel. Stated plainly, the Advents of Christ countermand all attempts to domesticate Christ through sentimentalism (a la Victorian Christmas) or Docetism (spirit-Jesus in my heart). All the Advent enfleshment depictions of the one Christ (crucified Christ, transformed by the resurrection Christ, glorified Christ) bespeak of and terminate in the Atonement. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the blood of the New Covenant shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, the Lamb who was slain.
This is where the biblical texts for Advent, be it in the one or three-year lectionaries, give semblance to the transition in season and yet heighten the tension of presence-in-time. Prophecies abound in the Psalms and Old Testament texts throughout these four weeks and the start of a new year, a year defined by the presence of Christ, by His various comings. Certainly, His in-flesh coming at Bethlehem will be on our minds, and there will be special remembrances of that Advent culminating in Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Services. But the prophesies in the Old Testament and Psalms do not begin Advent with that coming. No, the end of the old Church Year and the beginning of a new one are marked with the subtlest of transitions as the themes of end times, so prominent in recent Sundays that culminated in the Sunday of the Fulfillment, shift ever so slightly to the emphasis on Christ’s in-flesh coming at the end of time. Rounding out the matter, in Advent the Lord’s in-flesh coming to us long ago and His in-flesh coming at the end of time bracket the focus on His in-flesh coming to us now in Word and Sacrament.
Advent is a time of expectation, it is a time of remembrance, it is a time of hope, and it is especially a time of preparation by faith for all His comings. With Christmas ever looming over the heads of our auditors (thanks to the undignified commercialization of the event compounded by consumer impulses), preachers do well to terminate sermons about the future coming of Christ and the anniversary celebration of Christmas in the here-and-now communing upon the flesh of Christ — the Communion of Incarnation — especially since the first Advent was purposed to this end (foreshadowed by the infant being placed in a feeding trough... a veritable paten) and the final Advent will inaugurate an eternal feasting on Him as the Fruit of the Tree of Life (Revelation 22:2).