The Bethlehem difference

The New Testament reading that began this Advent season, from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, was filled with the tension between the “now” and the “not yet” of the two comings of the Messiah – a tension that was evidently an issue for the early church, and ought to be for us.

As biblical scholar Gianfranco Ravasi puts it in a commentary on that text (1 Thes 3:12-4:2), the “coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ and all his saints” preoccupied the early Christian community in Thessalonika,” where “the tension was continuous and almost palpable.” Paul’s new Thessalonian Christians were, evidently, in something of an eschatological rush: they anxiously “waited for the reappearance of Christ in the splendor of his divinity” in order to straighten things out – “to repair the confusions, traumas and brokenness of our history.” It’s hard, these days, not to sympathize.

2009 has been a beast of a year: the deaths of what seems a squadron of teachers, friends and irreplaceable leaders (Avery Dulles, Richard John Neuhaus, Francis Canavan, William Smith, Thomas Dillon, Ernest Lefever, Karen Novak, Irving Kristol, to name the most publicly prominent); a season of lethal global fanaticisms unchecked by courage or effective statecraft; a low year in Washington, with a White House scrambling to find its feet and a Congress that would make a carnival barker blush; a public square dominated by sound-bites and mendaciousness; further deteriorations in the culture, including bizarre cults of personality; and a divided Church, many of whose prominent public personalities seem little better catechized than toddlers.

Through the lens of Archbishop Ravasi’s commentary, we get a glimpse of what St. Paul might have said, confronted by Thessalonians with a similar catalogue of woes and looking for a quick answer (and perhaps a little payback) in the Second Coming. Paul gently but firmly reminded “those believers who had become obsessed with impatience (for) ‘new heavens and a new earth’ ” of what they ought to have learned already: that “the new history of the world has already begun” in the Resurrection, such that we ought to be growing now into an unshakeable hope and an ever-deeper love. Remember that, the apostle suggested, and whenever it pleases God to send his Christ back in glory, we’ll be found ready, “unblamable in holiness.”

Which is, I suppose, an elegant, Pauline way of saying, “Stop whining.” Edginess and anxiety for the future are understandable; but they’re also inappropriate for men and women who should already be living the promised renovation of the universe, in the communion of the Church with its Lord. The Second Coming, after all, is not intended to be an instant fix for all the things we find difficult to make right; the Second Coming is intended to manifest the cosmic glory of God.

That bracing Pauline reminder of the “not yet” that is, or ought to be, present to us here and now is especially appropriate during this Advent/Christmas season – a time to re-center our lives on the truth of the Incarnation and to re-discover the courage to be Catholic, for 2010 promises to be at least as challenging as the year quickly fading into history. Marriage will remain under attack; the inalienable right to life will be assaulted in the name of autonomy and compassion; a madman may try to incinerate the Holy Land with nuclear fire.

Facing that, we may well say, and mean, “Come, Lord Jesus.” But as we pray daily for the Kingdom’s coming in the words the Lord left us, let Christmas remind us that he has already come, which ought to make all the difference – the Bethlehem difference.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.