A few days ago, I walked into a New Age, vegan grocery store in my Austin neighborhood and noticed something strange: an Advent calendar for sale. As far as I can tell, the store owners have not suddenly become interested in readying their customers for the feast of the Incarnation.
The awkward presence of the Advent calendar in a store devoted mostly to the healing power of mushrooms and crystals is part of the larger secularization of the season of Advent, now purring along to the same commercial hum as secular Christmas. The plethora of Advent calendar themes—from Legos, bath bombs, and teas, all the way up the price scale to Tiffany jewelry—indicates that the season has been overtaken in the long consumerist march from Black Friday to Christmas Day.
I’m not opposed to Advent calendars per se . Of the three “comings” of Christ—the Incarnation, his arrival by the Holy Spirit in the church, and his final coming as king and judge—Advent calendars can help us with the first two. But not the third. Yet, as Fleming Rutledge and others have written, it’s precisely Christ’s third advent that has always been the primary focus of this season of the church calendar. He will return “to judge the living and the dead,” as the Apostles’ Creed says.
When the early Christians began to pray, fast, and give alms in the four Sundays before Christmas, they were mostly preparing themselves to receive in glory the one who had first become their savior in the manger.
From the fourth century onward, hope for the coming judgment of Christ was embedded in the shape of the season. Advent hope is preeminently about hope for the return of Jesus. Even now, in the Advent liturgies of the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches, the prayers and Scripture readings have a laser-like focus on the judgment of Christ that is to come.
This message doesn’t align with the affected excitement and coziness of secular Advent or Christmas. Who’s to blame for that? By no means do I want to minimize the role that commercialization has played in undermining the sober character of the season. But I think the greater culprit—in addition to the sheer forgetfulness of tradition that plagues Western Christians—is a loss of confidence that the final judgment of Christ is actually good news and therefore something for believers to look forward to.
The people known for enthusiastically preaching the return of Christ in judgment are generally known for being angry and antagonistic toward those they regard as heretics and nonbelievers. Among “missional” pastors who are culture affirming, devoted to social justice, and committed to creation care, I can count on one hand the number of sermons I’ve heard about how the judgment of Jesus is good news.
Why is it, then, that the Christians who gave us the season of Advent had no such difficulty? It’s because they were filled with joy and hope as they meditated on the coming of Jesus in glory and judgment. The early Christians were not cruel, sadistic misanthropes, gleefully looking at their unbelieving neighbors and fantasizing about how their blood would run in the streets when Jesus returned.
Of course, they were concerned about the eternal destiny of their neighbors and about their personal renewal in Jesus. The judgment of Christ was not about consigning the non-Christian mass of humanity to hell. It was primarily a final victory over the three cosmic enemies of Christ—sin, death, and the Devil, according to Martin Luther.
Christ’s triumph over these powers underscored the certainty that God’s creation was being slowly but inexorably liberated from bondage. Humanity was incrementally being elevated and ennobled—an “animal that is being deified,” in the striking phrase of Gregory of Nazianzus.
The early church proclaimed that the Son of God had not simply taken on a body. He had assumed human nature itself and set the whole human race on a new footing. The Incarnation initiated a process that silently and almost imperceptibly reshaped the personhood of those who had never even heard of Christ—and also those who adamantly rejected him.
For the early Christians, then, salvation was corporate and collective before it was individual. It was a refashioning of humanity itself that reverberated into each person’s life.
Augustine understood this concept well. In a homily on the 96th psalm, he writes that Adam fell and broke into a thousand pieces that filled the earth with dissensions, wars, and hatred, “but the Divine Mercy gathered up the fragments from every side, forged them in the fire of love and welded into one what had been broken. That was a work which this Artist knew how to do. … He who remade was himself the Maker; he who refashioned was himself the Fashioner.”
The completion of this process demands that every knee should bow, every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, and all his enemies—especially sin, death, and the Devil—be judged and put in subjection to his kingship.
For the early church, salvation was a deliverance that had already happened and was continuously, invisibly altering the shape of reality, not a sales pitch to one’s neighbors for a product they were unlikely to want. The Incarnation, the life of Christ, his defeat of death on the cross, the harrowing of hell, the Resurrection, the Ascension, his intercession at the right hand of God—these were the events that had unleashed the kingdom of God on the earth. In that context, the final judgment of Christ was something to hope for, be ever ready for, and be worthy of.
Through the centuries, many Christians have affirmed that the destiny of the cosmos itself, even plant and animal life, is to be elevated and transfigured along with humanity.
“Just as a bronze vessel that has become old and useless becomes new again when a metalworker melts it in the fire and recasts it,” wrote St. Symeon the New Theologian in the tenth century, “in the same way also the creation, having become old and useless because of our sins, … will appear new, incomparably brighter than it is now. Do you see how all creatures are to be renewed by fire?”
In a famous sermon, John Wesley declared that “the whole brute creation will, then, undoubtedly, be restored, not only to the vigor, strength and swiftness which they had at their creation, but to a far higher degree of each than they ever enjoyed. They will be restored, not only to that measure of understanding which they had in paradise, but to a degree of it as much higher than that, as the understanding of an elephant is beyond that of a worm.”
It makes you wonder: Are the talking animals of Narnia and the ents of Middle Earth merely fairy tales, or were Lewis and Tolkien in some way giving voice to the patristic hope that the entire cosmos would be transfigured in Christ?
Christian Advent departs from secular Advent to the extent that we recover these themes from the early church. It becomes the season of hope for us insofar as we recover our confidence that the return of Christ and his judgment over sin, death, and evil is good news.
As we open our Advent calendars and light our candles, then, Advent can remind us that Christ comes to judge the earth so that we may be revealed as what we are: sons and daughters of the living God, perfected and transfigured along with the whole of creation that Christ came to save.
Jonathan Warren Pagán is an Anglican priest living and serving in Austin, Texas.