Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

This Sunday was the first day of the church year, and the first day of the season of Advent. Advent is celebrated the four weeks before Christmas, and is a time of preparation for the festival that remembers the coming of our God to earth as a human being; but it is also a time of preparation for the next coming of Christ to earth. Through the centuries, hymn-writers have been inspired by the unique joys that come with every season of the church year: the recognition of our own mortal frailty that comes in Lent, the overwhelming gratitude for God’s mercy on Good Friday, the wild triumph of Easter, and of course the sudden gleam of hope in darkness that is Christmas. Each of these seasons has its own hymns to help us grasp emotionally the truths that we have learned intellectually, but that we so often forget. Advent, too, has as set of wonderful hymns. One of my favorites, and perhaps the best known, is Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel. It makes vivid our experience of waiting for Christ during this time. Advent was originally not connected with Christmas at all. For the early church, the important thing was to remember that Christ had promised that he would come again, and had told believers to be ready for him. It was only later that Christmas was placed at the end of Advent, as a reminder that God had fulfilled his first promise to send a Messiah, and as a pledge that he will fulfill his second promise.

Ascension by Giotto

Ascension by Giotto

At the beginning of the book of Acts, the book in which Christians now are in a very real way still living, Christ is “taken up” bodily, leaving his disciples looking forlornly after him. However, even as they stared, “two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’ Then they returned to Jerusalem” (1:9-11).

We should take three things from this. Firstly, right now Christ is really somewhere else—but he is there in his human body. The physics and metaphysics of this are complete mysteries, and it is probably unhelpful to think too closely about how a body could be taken out of the universe—especially because merely asking the question implies that the universe is something like a box, a shell separating two areas of space that are pretty much the same. We just can’t conceptualize these questions. However, the important thing is that the Incarnation was never undone; Jesus’s body was never separated from his being; our God is still both God and man.

Secondly, having received the assurance that Christ is indeed coming back, we should go about our business as usual. The disciples went back to Jerusalem and started doing the work they had left to do—first choosing the disciple to replace Judas, and then telling the whole world the glorious things they had seen. Earlier, when Jesus warned his disciples to keep watch for his coming (Matthew 24:42), he tells them to be ready; but the parable he uses to illustrate this is of a servant put in charge of the day-to-day running of his master’s household while he is gone (Matthew 24:45). Like that servant, we must be ready, not only by keeping watch, but by actually doing the tasks that have been set for us.

Thirdly, although we have been given tasks to fulfill for a time, there will be a change. Christ will return. The angels who tell the disciples to get going, to stop just staring, do so precisely by assuring them that Christ will come back. That is to be the source of our confidence as we work and pray. In the next three weeks, I’ll explore exactly what we’re waiting for as we, like Israel two thousand years ago, wait for Emmanuel, God-with-us, to come.