It’s not quite Advent yet, but a friend of mine saw Christmas lights being put up the other day, so I suppose that it’s not entirely out of place for me to discuss an Advent hymn this week. In any case, this particular hymn has been stuck in my head for most of the past month, and I don’t think I can last any longer without writing about it.

Lo! He comes with clouds descending
Once for our salvation slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of his train:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign.

Wait, you may be thinking at this point. This is an Advent hymn? But what about the infant Jesus, and God deigning to take on human weakness, and supreme humility? Isn’t that what Advent’s all about? Well, yes and no. On one hand, it is a marvelous thing, during Advent, to reflect that “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:5-7). This ought rightly to be remembered, because this supreme humility is at the heart of our faith. On the other hand, Advent did not start as merely a lead-up to Christmas; in fact, the earliest Christians celebrated it only, and the memorial feast of Christ’s birth was added to the celebration some time afterwards. Advent is a way to prepare for Christ’s second coming, his triumphant return to this earth. When he comes again, he will not be shrouded in obscurity; his glory will be clear for all to see. And yet, in some mysterious way, Christ’s glory is bound up with his suffering, his sovereignty with his humility. His body still bears the scars of his crucifixion, but they are his glory.

Those dear tokens of his passion
Still his dazzling body bears,
Cause of endless exultation
To his ransomed worshipers
With what rapture, with what rapture,
With what rapture gaze we on those glorious scars!

How often do we really think about Christ’s return? How often do we realize that at any moment he might come back? I don’t mean to be alarmist, or to suggest that the sort of action-adventure rapture theology that’s popular in some circles is how we should think about the end of time. But the Gospels are full of warnings; Christ himself said, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come…. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Matthew 24:42-44). This Advent, let us take more seriously Christ’s promise to us—whether this means cutting sin out of our lives or rejoicing in the wonder that one day all the wrongs of this unjust world shall be righted. Let us look forward with eagerness to that day, whether it happens in our lifetime or not. In some ways, we are a dispossessed and exiled people; but one day our true leader will return.

Yea, amen! Let all adore thee,
High on thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory;
Claim the kingdom for thine own:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.