How do we picture the return of Christ? Do we imagine a spectacle like none other, in which a trumpet is blown and Jesus comes out of the sky for all to see in his radiant glory? Do we conjure images of the end of the world from movies and literature? Maybe a virus sweeps over the globe causing panic and fear that this could be how it all ends. Or an interpretation of Scripture (various interpretations of the book of Revelation aside) about the Apocalypse which includes an epic Battle of Armageddon?
Perhaps there is another way of understanding the return of Christ that escapes our attention. In the book of the Acts of the Apostles (1:10-11) we hear “two men” tell those watching Jesus ascend to heaven say,
Why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.
What does it mean for Jesus to come in the same way he went into heaven? Most, if not all, icons of the ascension of Christ portray his ascension ambiguously, in that viewer cannot tell whether he is ascending to heaven or coming to earth. As a result, he is depicted as continually present in the midst of his people. That is, we are already living under the kingship of Jesus Christ while we also await his coming again bringing with him the fullness of his Kingdom. In other words, the advent of Jesus is both anticipated and already upon us.
Armenian Church miniature depicting the Ascension of Christ
The promise of Christ’s return, his coming again as illustrated in the icons of his ascension, is exactly what takes place in Badarak (Armenian Eucharistic Celebration), the profundity of which is incomprehensible. Just as Jesus ascended, he returns to us in Badarak within the midst of his people. In Badarak, we enter beyond time and space into God’s time, his eternal presence, where this is no before or after, and we joyfully share in the “marriage supper of the lamb” (Revelation 19:9), the feast at the end of the age, a meal that has not yet been eaten, and yet paradoxically, it is shared and eaten whenever we commune at the chalice. Badarak is not a dramatic retelling or an act of remembrance, but the coming of the Kingdom in our midst. As we sing in the hymn for the kiss of peace, “Christ in our midst has been revealed; he who is, God, is here seated,” we the Church, as theologian Vigen Guroian writes, are lifted up into the “Apocalypse,” into that which is hidden, that which is coming, the Advent of Jesus Christ himself, where we meet and are welcomed by the Lord at his Second Coming, “and so we shall always be with the Lord.” (I Thessalonians 4:17)
The last Sunday of Great Lent in the Armenian Church is referred to as the Sunday of Advent. When we think of the word “advent,” which means “coming,” (գալուստ) what comes to mind? It sounds like the future tense. We may think of the “second coming” of Christ. We picture in our minds a future arrival of Jesus Christ in power and glory followed by a future and final judgment, the end of all things. But are Christianity and the end of all things only future oriented? In the Christian sense, the “end” is not a point in time, or the conclusion of a linear historical timeline. The End is a person, Jesus himself.
[Jesus] was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake. (I Peter 1:20)
But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Hebrews 9:26b)
Armenian Orthodox Bishop celebrating Badarak
Jesus Christ is the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Almighty who is, was, and is to come (Revelation 1:8, 22:13). He is the revelation of the End of all things, the fulfillment of all things, the reconciliation and healing of all things, the purpose toward and in which all things live, move, and have their being (Acts 17:28). Jesus Christ is the Eschaton.
Now that we have come to the end of the world, or rather Jesus Christ himself who is the End of all things has come to us, why would we stare into the sky waiting for his return like those in the first chapter of Acts? Or why would we wait for something like a virus to invoke the idea of the world ending? Economic collapse does not mean the end of the world. Separated families, friends, and loved ones is not the end of the world. Not even the closing of Churches, as chilling and salvifically depriving as that may be, signifies the end of the world. No matter what pandemic is ripping through the globe, this is not how the world ends, not when we have faith in the End himself, Jesus Christ.
None of this is to say that Jesus is not coming again, a second time. He is coming again, but he is already here, and so we already experience a foretaste of his return, one that reveals his holiness in us.
St. Peter Armenian Church, Watervliet NY
And so the End is present, but not how the world perceives it. No matter our circumstances, we are empowered and enlightened now, through baptism, to live as a “new creation” (II Corinthians 5:17) as St. Paul teaches. Through Christ we forgive not just our friends and family, but our enemies. We pray for those who persecute us. We give and expect nothing in return. When struck, we turn the other cheek. The lame walk, the blind receive their sight, bread and fish are multiplied, storms are calmed, our sins are forgiven, and the sick are healed. We can close the doors of our churches, but still find ways to come together to pray and commune with God and with one another – a communion that transcends physical proximity. The end of the world is one in which faith, hope, and love endure no matter what’s out there; when we are given the capacity to love like God loves; whena 72 year-old Catholic priest in Italy with Coronavirus gives up his ventilator for a younger person, in the process laying down his own life.
We know the End is present because in a time and situation like today, we resonate with the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians:
In all things, give thankful praise, for this is what God desires for you through Christ Jesus. (I Thessalonians 5:18, trans. from Krapar)
When we can still utter the last words of our beloved St. John Chrysostom:
Փառք քեզ, աստուած, փառք քեզ . յաղագս ամենայնի, տէր, փառք քեզ: Glory to you, God, glory to you. For everything, Lord, glory to you.
That is the version of the end of the world Jesus wants us to believe and live today, because, again, as we joyfully sing during Badarak, the End himself,
Christ in our midst has been revealed; he who is, God, is here seated.
...and present in our holiness. So that we may glorify the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.