"What I say to you, I say to all: Watch!" (Mt 13:37)
How are we to watch? The psalmist says: "I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning" (Ps 130:5-6).
And who is the Lord whom we await? Von Balthasar says:
"For the Christian - the only person who is really waiting for the Coming One - Advent is like a great gate through which he passes to enter some shrine. This gate is flanked by two figures guarding it; if we are Christians, they ask us why and with what intentions we are seeking admission. The two figures are very dissimilar, yet they are always found on old pictures, on the right and left of the Expected One (who is in fact the One Who Has Come). One stands tall and straight, haggard, an angel clothed in camel's hair, who wants to be nothing but a Voice resounding through the wilderness of the world, the desert of time: 'Prepare the way of the Lord.' The other figure is shrouded and wrapped in her own thoughts; only her body tells of the One she is expecting; her soft words reecho: 'Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.' Both know who they are waiting for... For Emmanuel, God-with-us"
Thus, Advent - which means 'Arrival' - is that season of watching, waiting, longing for the coming of the Lord. With the Church, the Bride of Christ, we cry out: "Maranatha!"; Come O Lord, come! And it is the Expected One, Who has in fact Come, that we call out to. In these initial weeks of Advent it is the long-expected Parousia of Christ in glory that we await with fresh hope and joy.
We live in the time between the Incarnation and the Parousia, what Von Balthasar calls "a specifically 'Christian time' that bears fruit in eternal time". And moreover, "the Son, therefore, puts his time - passing, yet replete with eternity - at our disposal in the Church as the Church's time, the Church's year, the Church's life, so that by living in it we shall share in Christ's own time" (Theo-Drama V, p129). This is a worthy consideration as we now enter a new liturgical year, a new year of the Church's time.
But what of the Parousia? How are we to watch for the Lord's return? Von Balthasar maintains that "Christ's return to the world has already begun in the Eucharist" (ibid, p130). Indeed, he then says (drawing upon the mystical utterances of Von Speyr),
"Thus the Eucharist becomes a meeting point, even more, a synthesis, a flowing source of the Son and of belief. Time and eternity come together... the whole of non-temporal and non-spatial eternal life is projected into the small-sized host. And when the Son gives himself in communion, it is as if he were simultaneously giving heaven and earth... the moment we communicate, the two planes, heaven and earth, coincide... and the promised heaven becomes its fulfillment. The Lord bestows in advance what he achieves through Cross and Resurrection, namely, incorruption"(ibid, p135). As such, he makes it clear that the Parousia and the "life of the world to come" is already present in the Mass and in Holy Communion.
This same idea is shared by Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote as early as 1977 when he was a Cardinal:
"The Parousia is the highest intensification and fulfilment of the Liturgy. And the Liturgy is Parousia, a Parousia-like event taking place in our midst… And so light falls on a further aspect: the interweaving of present and future which constitutes the specific mode of Christianity’s presence in the world and its openness of what is to come. The dethronement of the world elements, the fading of sun, moon, stars, has already taken place, and yet is still to come. The trumpet of the Word is already summoning us, and yet it is still to be sounded. Every Eucharist is Parousia, the Lord’s coming, and yet the Eucharist is even more truly the tensed yearning that he will reveal his hidden Glory… As the Crucified, Jesus continues to be the One who goes away. As the Pierced One with the outstretched arms he continually comes. For the loving person who keeps his commandments, his coming occurs in an ‘eschatological event’ in the midst of the world. In touching the risen Jesus, the Church makes contact with the Parousia of the Lord. She prays and lives, so to speak, into that Parousia whose disclosure will be the definitive revelation and fulfilment of the mystery of Easter. Seen in this perspective, the theme of the Parousia ceases to be a speculation about the unknown. It becomes an interpretation of the Liturgy and the Christian life in their intimate connection as in their continual going beyond themselves. The motif of the Parousia becomes the obligation to live the Liturgy as a feast of hope-filled presence directed towards Christ, the universal ruler. In this way, it must become the origin and focus of the love in which the Lord can take up his dwelling… The theme of watchfulness thus penetrates to the point where it takes on the character of a mission: to let the Liturgy be real, until that time when the Lord himself gives to it that final reality which meanwhile can be sought only in image"
And therein lies the mode of our watching, our alert attention to the Christian mission. As Von Balthasar adds,
"Turn and repent of your sins, says the Baptist again and again. What does this mean? It means we must search for that turning point in our innermost self, the place where we turn from the 'I' to the 'thou' and to God, from sterile living for ourselves to fruitful living for others by following God, Emmanuel... Then, together, with the Virgin who is with Child... we can plant God's life in this world and make it grow... If we live out our lively faith in the God who wants to become man on earth, we are already 'pregnant' with him, empowered to carry him until he is born - and that will be a Christmas"
What then are we to make of our belief in Christ's return in glory, as the Creed professes and as the Scriptures expect? Truly Christ will return "to judge the living and the dead" and has already returned (in the Eucharist and the sacraments of His Body, the Church). Von Balthasar speaks from a stand-point of 'christological time', which is unique and distinct from anthropological time. And yet, he insists, everything that is seen anthropologocally, must be "integrated in and subordinated to this trinitarian 'time'". As such he says,
"By the standards of eternal life, we are still living in expectation... We are meant, not to skip over temporality, but to live with Christ in time in such a way that it acquires an importance that the Father will not refuse to acknowledge. In bidding us 'lay up treasures in heaven', the Lord shows us what a mysterious relationship with heaven we already have. We are to work on earth and do what God requires of us, and this work will bring forth fruit; we have the right to harvest this fruit - but in heaven. Our entire temporal life has its fruit in heaven"
It is this harvesting that we expect, this expectation that we await with hope and this hope that we pray will be brought to fulfillment when Christ is all in all. And so in Advent and indeed, every day of our lives when we await His Parousia and work our our salvation, we cry out with joy: "Come, Lord Jesus, do not delay!" (cf Intercessions of First Vespers, First Sunday of Advent).
The image above is from an 19th century Missal from my personal collection.