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Advent Psalms and the Return of the King

Cardinal Vincent Nichols

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference leads us in an Advent reflection, encouraging us to pray the Advent Psalms with new joy and enthusiasm as we contemplate, the comings of Christ, as a baby born in the manger into our own lives, but also in preparation of his Second Coming, the Return of the King.

Our hope is to pray the season’s psalms with renewed joy and enthusiasm, to discover and explore together the rich collection of hymns, prayers, lamentations, thanksgivings, songs and chants from the Bible’s Prayerbook. The five books of the Psalms (‘Praises’) are a masterpiece, a rich treasury. They are profoundly Jewish prayers but Christian too. They came from the bosom of Israel, the soil of their history, from the very depths of the Chosen People. They are a mirror of God’s marvellous deeds but also express poetically and beautifully the fragility and dignity of the human condition. As members of the Body of Christ we will discover together their hidden depths, revere their sacred beauty and, most of all, sing them with new joy. This holy season has a twofold character. We prepare for and remember the first coming of Christ, the baby born in a manger, the Lord’s Anointed, the Messiah, the Son of God. But we also look forward to Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. Lift up your hearts, be glad, and rejoice in the Lord, for we are entering a time of devout and expectant delight.

Advent is divided in to two parts. The first, from November 27 (First Sunday of Advent) to December 16, focuses on the Second Coming of Christ. The second, from December 17 to December 24. focuses on the first coming of Christ, God made man, the Word made flesh. The Liturgy of the Word directs our gaze towards the blessed hope of the Church, our end and final goal: an encounter with the Lord who will come again in the splendour of glory. We join our prayer to the Psalmists: ‘Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in’ (Psalm 24:9).

Who is this King of glory? The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come, Lord Jesus, Come.’

We contemplate the great mystery of faith – the return of Christ, the Second Coming, the blessed hope of the Church. The Liturgy of the Word makes present this ancient expectation of the Messiah and through it we share in the long preparation for the Saviour’s first coming, renewing our ardent desire for Christ’s Second Coming. To pray, ‘Come, Lord Jesus, Come’ is the work of the Holy Spirit; through it we express the deepest heartfelt desire of the Spirit and the Bride. ‘The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come”’ (Revelation 22:17). Advent is a very special invitation; an opportunity to sing praises and rejoice in the first coming of the Messiah, but also to prepare for the return of the King.

We sing the Psalms from our hearts, like the Israelites of old, as members of a body, once Israel, now the Church. We are united with them in a shared and common faith in the coming of the Messiah, for them the Messiah to come, for us the Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed, Jesus of Nazareth, the King of Kings, of whom the Psalmist sang: The Lord says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand and I will make your enemies your footstool’ (Psalm 110:1).

‘The Virgin brings into the world the Eternal. The earth offers a cave to the inaccessible. The angels and shepherd praise him and the magi advance with the star. For you are born to us, little child, God eternal’
(Kontakion of Romanos the Molodist).

Since the Ascension, Christ’s return has been imminent. The English word imminent derives from the Latin imminere meaning ‘to overhang’ or ‘to lean towards.’ We don’t tend to think of Jesus’ return as about to happen, but faith invites us to lean towards it; to be expectant and hopeful. ‘Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again’ has been the constant refrain of the Church since the earliest of days. We share with the Jewish people a thirst for the coming of God; Israel, for the first coming, we for his second. The Psalmist asked: ‘Who is this king of glory?’ (Psalm 24:8).

We don’t know when Christ will return. We are naturally curious about times and dates. Jesus said: ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority’ (Acts 1:7). Jesus who was taken up into heaven, will come again in the same way (Acts 1:11). We are living in the age of the Spirit; a time of waiting, watching and witness. How do we watch and wait? We learn from the Psalmist: ‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope, more than watchmen for the morning’ (Psalm 130:5). We don’t know how to pray but the Sprit intercedes with groans that words cannot express.

Time is fleeting; this world is passing. A thousand years are but as yesterday, a watch in the night.
The King of Glory, O come, let us adore him.

The Jewish people are our elder brothers in faith. Theirs the law, the psalms and the prophets.

They are the Chosen People; God’s gifts and call are irrevocable (Romans 11:29). We owe the Jewish

people a great debt and revere and esteem them. Indeed, Mary and Joseph, St Peter, the Apostles and St Paul were all faithful Jews. For them Jesus was the Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed, pointed to in many and various ways in the Torah, the Prophets and the Psalms (Psalms 2 and 110). The return of the King is suspended at every moment of history until ‘all Israel’ recognises Jesus as the Messiah. This is a mystery of faith; a precious work of the Spirit, as only the Spirit can convince and reveal that Jesus is the Christ, the Lord and King.

God knows that we too live in uncertain and precarious times: the recent global Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis, not to mention our own personal daily and very real struggles. Truly, we are living through a time of trial and testing. There will be a final trial before Christ’s Second Coming which will shake the faith of many (Catechism of the Catholic Church 675). We don’t know when this will be; history only points to its birthpangs. God is our strength, protector and refuge.

A popular bumper sticker said: ‘Jesus is coming. Look busy!’ Many a true word spoken in jest!

Jesus will return at a time we least expect, and no one knows when this will be (Matthew 24:44). Not even Jesus on earth knew the time of his coming, this is known only by the Father (Matthew 24:36).

So how are we to live our lives? Saint Francis of Assisi was cultivating a row of beans in his garden when a pilgrim approached and asked, ‘What would you be doing now if you knew this was the last day of your earthly life?’ Saint Francis smiled and replied: ‘I would keep on hoeing’. St Francis cultivated the virtue of joy and hope in his heart and so must we.

The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come, Lord Jesus, Come.’

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