By Heather Smith
Christianity sits at the intersection of time and eternity, where the eternal God enters the forward-flowing stream of time for our sake. The liturgy and lectionary teach us this mystery in many ways, but never so clearly as in Advent. In the season of Advent, we learn not just of Christ who came or who is coming again, but of Christ “who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev. 1:8).
Our linear minds most often think of Advent as the season of waiting to celebrate Christ’s coming as a babe in Bethlehem, and it certainly is a time of preparation for and meditation on this great event. We cannot marvel enough at the mystery of the Word becoming flesh to dwell among us. The infinite God made Himself a finite creature. The Lord who is without beginning or end was born.
Christianity is a historical religion, not one of vague presences and flighty feelings. Thus, we set our calendars to recall each year the true events that worked God’s salvation for us. Christ came into the world at a specific time—in the days of Caesar Augustus, while Quirinius was governor of Syria. It is good that we, who so easily forget God’s wondrous works, yearly call to mind how Christ came in the past.
Advent also turns us toward Christ’s coming again. Many of the readings and hymns during this season call out for us to stay alert and look for our Lord’s return. As surely as He came once to win salvation for us, He will come again to deliver us from sin and death forever.
We who live in the time between His comings constantly need to be filled with these words of promise and warning so that our faith may continue to burn brightly. That lamp of faith guides us as we walk through the shadows of these gray and latter days, seeing “distress of nations in perplexity” and “people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world,” for we have our Savior’s promise that “when these things begin to take place . . . your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:25-28). So we also encourage one another as we look toward that swiftly coming future.
Yet our gracious Lord does not leave His time-bound creatures always looking to past and future. He comes to us where we are now. This is our constant prayer: “Thy kingdom come.” Not that we must by our pleas convince God to come, for as Luther reminds us, “The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.” Advent speaks of Christ’s coming to us here, now, in the midst of earthly life.
In trial and sorrow, He comes. In mundane daily tasks, He comes. In joys and struggles, He comes. His kingdom comes “when our heavenly Father sends us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His Holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.” He does not leave us orphans, but comes to us in Word and Sacrament even now, in the present time.
So it is that in Advent all time is rolled into one. Past, future, and present meet here, and we catch a glimpse of eternity. Through the most temporal activity of all—waiting—we find the assurance that all our waiting is already fulfilled in the eternal triune God. To us who see only one moment at a time, Christ our lamb slain from before the foundation of the world speaks, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Take heart because He came as He promised to suffer God’s wrath in our place. Take heart because He will come again to judge the living and the dead. Take heart because He comes to us so long as this earth remains in His Word and Sacraments. He is the first and last, the living one who died yet is alive forevermore (Rev. 1:17-18), and in that day when time ends and we are raised to eternity with Him, we will understand fully how He who is, and who was, and who is to come, really is, and always has been, the eternal I AM.
Heather is a pastor's wife in rural Illinois, prior to which she was a teacher in a classical Lutheran school in Wyoming and spent time in the Washington, D.C. area working on a master's degree in English. She has an abiding love for reading, baking, deep intellectual conversations, and persistent Lutheran matchmakers.