Jesus said to his disciples:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will die of fright
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of Man
coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
But when these signs begin to happen,
stand erect and raise your heads
because your redemption is at hand.
“Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times
and pray that you have the strength
to escape the tribulations that are imminent
and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Luke 21: 25-36
Advent is the season when we celebrate the entry of God into the world as a helpless babe. The Latin word adventus means entry, arrival, coming, so it is a fitting word for the birth of Jesus. But why does the Gospel reading for this first Sunday of Advent include Christ’s prophecy of the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory along with his warning to be vigilant? Well, if we look at the other readings this Sunday, we can see that they are all about waiting:
From Jeremiah, “The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah.”
Psalm 25: “Your ways, O LORD, make known to me; teach me your paths, Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my savior, and for you I wait all the day.”
From Thessalonians: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love
for one another and for all,
just as we have for you,
so as to strengthen your hearts,
to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father
at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.”
What these all have in common is that we are waiting for the Lord’s coming. We tend to think of this only in terms of the birth of Jesus, but Advent has always had a dual focus on both the First and Second Comings of Christ. This first week of Advent looks at the Second Coming, and gives us a good ending to the Liturgical Year. Next week the focus will be on John the Baptist, the predecessor of Christ, and then we’ll turn to the approach of the birth of Christ. So what we’re doing now is preparing ourselves as we await the Advent of the Lord.
The early iconography of Christ’s second coming are images often depicting our Lord enthroned with a globe beneath his feet and accompanied by Apostles and Saints. The Basilica of San Vitale contains a 6th century apse mosaic of this image, shown above. The four rivers of Paradise flow from the watery blue globe at Christ’s feet. The last Judgment is only implied here, with Christ handing a victor’s wreath to St. Vitale with his right hand and holding a sealed tablet in his left hand that contains the names of the judged.
The image of the Last Judgment was commonly used on Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals, often over the doorways, like the one above. Figures of the damned and the saved have now been added, so visitors would see them either entering or exiting the church as a grim reminder of what happens to the unjust and the righteous.
In some images we see St. Michael weighing the souls of the dead, as in the scene at the center of the magnificent Beaune Altarpiece, above, by Rogier Van der Weyden.
The most famous scene of the Last Judgment is undoubtedly that by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.
I encourage you to click on the links above, which take you to brief but excellent videos by art historians on these works of art. Then perhaps, reread the scripture passages for today and consider how your life and actions are preparing you for the coming of the Lord. Where do you see yourself in these images of Judgment? Are you certain you are with the blessed on the left? Personally, I’m always struck by the image of the man on the rock from Michelangelo’s scene, who has suddenly realized where he is heading as demons bite and claw at him! I don’t want to be that man! How ready are you?