Today is the first Sunday in the season of Advent, which marks the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.
The English word advent comes from the Latin word ‘adventus’ and speaks of the coming or the arrival of something, or someone that is important or note-worthy.
Within the Greco-Roman world of the early Church, the Latin word Adventus had a very specific cultural meaning relating to the Roman Emperor. It referred to the ‘second coming’ of the Emperor to a part of the empire that had been rocked by some kind of disaster.
Much like our politicians today, if there was a natural disaster in some part of the Empire, like an earthquake or volcanic eruption, the emperor would make a visit to the city to survey the damage and to give encouragement to the people of the area. In doing so, he would bring with him a large sum of money to be used for the rebuilding of the city. This would do two things, it would maintain the loyalty of the people of that region to the Emperor, and also ensure the ongoing strength and stability of the Empire itself. Everyone knew that the emperor would one day return to the city in order to see what the people of that city had done with the money in order to rebuild what had been damaged.
This return, or second coming of the Emperor was described with the Latin word adventus. In Greek, the word would have been parousia.
When word was sent out that the Emperor was returning to the area there would obviously be a surge in work and activity to make sure everything was ready for his arrival. And as he drew closer, a lookout would have been placed in a strategic place to sound the call to tell the people that that the Emperor Caesar was near. And when the Emperor would arrive, it was marked with the sound of a loud trumpet blast. As Marty Solomon writes, the city would not want to be caught napping with the Emperor knocking on the city gates.
When the Emperor arrived at the city, the first thing he would do would be to pay his obligatory respects to the dead, stopping at the graveyards that could normally be found outside the entrance to most Greco-Roman cities.
After the Emperor had paid his respects, honouring the dead and those who had gone before, the people of the city would then go out to meet him. Marty Solomon writes that this meeting between the Emperor and the people of a city was referred to in Greek with the words 'eis apantesien'. And the purpose was to go out from the city to meet the emperor with joy, taking him metaphorically speaking by the hand to show him the great work that had been done in restoring the city.
In our passage from Thessalonians today the Apostle Paul speaks of the return, the parousia, or the adventus of Christ, and in doing so, Paul borrows imagery of the return, the parousia or adventus of the Roman Emperor. You can hear the Greco-Roman imagery echoing through the passage in 1 Thessalonians 4
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
The context in which Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians was written was to a Church community that was expecting the immanent return of Christ. And as a result, a number of people in the community had become lazy. If Christ was soon going to return, what use was there in engaging in any work at all, whether physical labour or work for the Kingdom of God?
Paul’s purpose in describing the return of Christ as an adventus or as a parousia was intended to communicate to the Thessalonian Church that they had work to do. As Marty Solomon writes, “...because God left them with a deposit and expected them to use it to restore, heal and rebuild.
In the passage from Thessalonians, in the same way as the people of a city would go out to ‘eis apantesin’ (pronounced ‘ice apantaysin’) or meet the Emperor and to show him the work that had been done in his name to rebuild and restore, so Paul suggests that when the trumpet sounds for the return of Christ, so the Christians of Thessolonica would get caught up to ‘eis apantesin’ the Lord, to meet Christ and to show him the work that they had done in his name to restore, reconcile, heal and rebuild.
Marty Solomon makes an interesting observation, that many of those Christians who speak today of the immanent return of Christ, and what they would call the rapture, when Christ will supposedly swoop down to take up all the true believers up to heaven have a similar theology of disengagement from life in this world. If Christ is to return and rescue Christians from this world, why bother with engaging in healing, reconciling, restoring and rebuilding work in this world. But, as Marty Solomon writes, this is exactly the idea that the Apostle Paul is teaching against in his letter to the Thessalonians.
As Marty Solomon writes: “Paul is not arguing for a disengaged theology… This is not a theology of disembodied evacuation; it’s a theology of physical participation.”
The early Christian’s expectation of the immanent return of Christ did not materialise. At different times in history various Christian groups have revived the expectation that the return of Christ is just around the corner. The coronavirus pandemic may have been another of those occasions that has fueled such an expectation. But I’m not so sure how helpful or healthy it is to live with the immanent expectation of Christ’s return. I think there is a danger that it can cause people to mentally check out of living responsibly in this world and prevent us from making wise long term decisions. But I do believe that the symbolism of the Second Coming of Christ still has value for us in fueling a wider and deeper hope within us; that hope and belief that despite the upheavals that often take place in this world in some overall and ultimate sense, God is still in control and will bring the deepest hopes and dreams of the human heart to completion, and that in the meantime, there is work to be done: healing, rebuilding, reconciling and restoring work, empowered by the spirit of Christ’s love in our hearts.
Over the centuries, the word Adventus came to be used for that Season of four weeks in the Christian Calendar leading up to Christmas. Advent has traditionally had a triple role…
1. Preparing the hearts of Christians for the remembrance and the celebration of the birth of Christ into the world 2000 years ago.
2. Secondly, the season of advent, has been seen as a focussed period in which the hearts of all Christians can be nurtured and cultivated, rebuilt and restored so that that the presence of Christ’s love and wisdom might shine ever brighter in our hearts, lives, words and actions. Preparing the ground for Christ’s presence to metaphorically be born within us again enabling the return of Christ into the world through the lives of those who bear his name: Christians.
3. Thirdly, the Season of advent, and particularly the first Sunday of Advent have been an opportunity for fixing the sights of Christians on the ultimate hope when God will bring all things to their completion in Christ’s love, when God’s Presence and Kingdom would be known in all it’s fullness, the hope of the day when God will be “all and in all”, when every tear will be wiped away and all things restored in Christ’s infinite light and love.
Over the past 20-30 years, as Christmas has been more and more been secularised and as it has been hijacked by a materialistic and commercial agenda, the call has grown in some quarters for Christ to be put back into Christmas. Just this week I was quite challenged by a meme on Facebook. It read as follows: Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, love the outcast, forgive the wrongdoer, inspire the hopeless.
And so, on this first Sunday of Advent, as we journey towards Christmas, celebrating the coming of God’s love in the birth of Christ, seeking for that love to be born again within our own hearts and looking forward to the day when all things will be brought to completion in that Love, as Marty Solomon writes, may we be reminded that we have work to do here – today. Amen.