Advent is a unique season of the ecclesial year and one that is uniquely misunderstood. It is not solely about the coming of the Lord as the Son of Mary, a baby in the manger. It is also about the coming of the Lord in judgment at world’s end. This is why it is a penitential season. And it is also why the first Gospel reading of Advent includes this from the book of Luke.
Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man. (Luke 21:36)
Be vigilant and pray, says the Lord Jesus. Why? So that we may have strength. Strength for what? Strength to escape “the tribulations that are imminent” and also to stand before the Son of Man. That is rather alarming. Please note that Jesus is not talking to just anyone here; He is telling this to His disciples, including the Apostles. Why should they of all people need to pray for strength to stand before Him?
This does not mean that He considered them to be unbelievers (Judas excepted of course). In fact I suspect that there are at least a few people who would confirm that strength is just exactly what one needs when he stands before God.
Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! (Isaiah 6:5)
We will certainly die, for we have seen God. (Judges 13:22)
Now, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the Lord, our God, any more, we shall die. (Deuteronomy 5:25)
Do not the Lord’s words of warning sound very much in keeping with what Isaiah, Manoah, and all Israel thought when they were in God’s presence? “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31. So it makes sense, it seems to me, for this to be a penitential season. We are preparing to meet our God at His coming! Yes, there will be joy for His people but God is an infinitely awesome God. Who can have the heart to stand in the presence of such a great God? I think this is why Jesus tells us to pray that we may have strength to stand before Him. Advent is not only about Christmas. The Day of the Lord is both great and terrible (Malachi 3:23).
But who can endure the day of his coming?
Who can stand firm when he appears? (Malachi 3:2)