Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
In the early Church, when Christian believers gathered or parted, when they first saw each other or were separating, they didn’t say the equivalent of our “hello” or “goodbye.” They said “Maran-atha!”—an Aramaic expression that means “Come, Lord Jesus.” (Revelations 22:20)
The Church Father, St. Hippolytus of Rome, in 204 AD, recorded that a certain Bishop was convinced that the Lord Jesus was going to return immediately. He urged his followers to sell all of their land and possessions and to follow him into the wilderness to await the Lord’s imminent arrival. Far earlier than this, when St. Paul penned his Epistle to the Thessalonians in 52 AD, it bore a palpable sense of urgency that dealt with the impending return of Christ.
The first Christians were convinced that Jesus was coming in glory in their days—and they were excited about it! This is referred to as the “Parousia,” the Second Coming. It is a term that was used more than 25 times in the New Testament. Christian believers stand between the two comings. We have experienced the coming in the flesh of the Christ of God in the Nativity, the Incarnation of the Word. But this pre-Nativity (Advent) season also reminds us that we still wait, we still anticipate the Second Coming of the Lord when he binds up all the epochs of human history and presents them back to the Father from Whom they originated.
The late theologian and paleontologist, Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, expressed the Second Coming as Christogenesis, “the moment when Christ will transform the entire cosmos at a point when God will be all in all.” (I Corinthians 15:28) As Orthodox believers, this is an essential aspect of our faith. Our Creed proclaims it: “….and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose Kingdom there shall be no end.”
Our Liturgy echoes it: “For a Christian ending to our life: painless, unashamed, and peaceful; and for a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us ask of the Lord.” (Fervent Litany)
Christ will come again. There will be a judgment during which we will make answer for the Christian quality of our life, and we will either be embraced by the eternal presence of God (Heaven) or forever live without him (Hell), a fate the poets have called “the exquisite sorrow.” One is a place of unending Love, the other is a place of desolation and isolation from Love—forever. There is one catch with this Second Coming of the Lord, and we read of it in St. Mark’s Gospel.
“But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)
What do we do while we wait? How can we make ready for the return of the Master even though we don’t know the day nor the hour? I offer three possibilities: we wake up, we stand up, and we give up.
We wake up. St. Mark puts it simply: “Take heed, watch!” (Mark 13:33)
Understanding Our Preparation
Like the first Christians, you and I need to be aware and watchful, not for dramatic signs and wonders or prognostications about what date Christ will arrive again, but vigilant for the character of our spiritual life (προσοχή, watchfulness).
When is the last time we reflected on the health of our soul as much as we do our bodies? We need to wake ourselves from the lethargy of spiritual complacency and from the comfort of roots sunk too deeply into this time and space. We are glory bound! We are future-directed. Our home, like the Lord’s, is not of this world. Do we ever think of that? You and I need to train ourselves to be watchful, to guard our hearts and souls. (νῆψις, nepsis)
Elder Ephraim of Philotheou Monastery on Mt. Athos reminds us: “When watchfulness takes place in the life of the Christian, a tree of passion falls, it withers and thus in time, the old man, the man of sin and of passion, the earthly Adam is freed and he becomes “a new man.”
If we want to cleanse ourselves, we should make sure to enrich our souls and minds by the application of watchfulness.” This wakefulness prepares us for that glorious Second Coming of the Lord. It can reshape our life priorities, can change the way we live every day, and put this world in perspective. We are but sojourners on our way to the new and eternal Jerusalem!
We stand up. Coming to grips with watchfulness in our lives, our work is only half done. We need to stand up for the faith we hold, to reveal it in hundreds of small ways, to become “martyrs” (witnesses). This is lived-Christianity.
So often we unconsciously drift through life unmindful of our faith. We go to Church, get involved in many parish activities, do what our parents did as Orthodox, but we rarely stop to seriously consider how we translate our faith into our roles as witnesses, our watchfulness into concrete actions. Is my faith REAL?
We become lulled by the siren call of this world, almost hypnotized by the here and now, lured by the glitzy bobbles of a society that promise happiness but always manage to come up short. Can others discern that we are followers of Jesus Christ by our words, by how we act, by how we treat people, by the character of ou thinking and opinions, by how we treat our spouses and children?
A vigilant heart is of little use unless it finds its way out and expresses itself. St. Athanasius of Alexandria wrote: “Even on the cross Christ did not hide Himself from sight; rather, He made all creation witness the presence of its God.”
Taking Action Through Intention
Can we say the same? Do we struggle to be Christ, to live Christ, to be another Christ in our world or do we just blend in so we will be accepted? Lastly, We give up. By giving up I don’t mean surrender. I mean reaching the next step after witnessing—loving service. At the core of the martyr’s heart is love. To be watchful and to witness are both preludes to active loving. This kind of loving means we surrender our ego. We are less concerned about the “I” and more focused on the “You.”
As St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom both taught, when the Lord does come again in glory, he won’t examine us on the law and pious exercises of religion, but on the precepts of love, whether or not we have consistently reached out to the hungry, those in prison, the homeless, the unclothed, victims of violence or political oppression, any person in need. What have we DONE for the lost and confused, for the sick of body or mind, those countless people whose paths we cross every day. Are we often deaf to their cries because we are so wrapped up in our own comfort?
These are sobering questions, but the reality behind them is of greater importance still: When Christ comes again, at the unknown hour and “like a thief in the night” (I Thessalonians 5:2), will He find us watchful, witnessing, and genuinely loving, or will He look into our eyes and hardly recognize us as His own?
I sincerely pray that on that glorious day, each of you hears His words: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, receive the Kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world!” (Matt. 25:34)
Maran-atha! Come, Lord Jesus!
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