These days, Advent Sunday is often seen simply as the beginning of the Christmas season, mixed up with all the television adverts, “Black Friday”, and the preparations for family feasts, present-giving, and all the rest.
But in the Church’s Year it is the celebration of the “Coming of the Son of Man”- usually understood as the visible Second Coming of Jesus at the “end of the Age” (or even the end of the world!). But in the New Testament the notion of the “Son of Man” is far richer than that, so rich in fact that it has baffled and confused Christians for many a long time.
Its roots lie with Daniel’s dream in chapter seven of the Book of Daniel, in which he sees four great “beasts” coming up out of the sea, each one fiercer and stronger than the one before it. Finally a court is set up, and one who is “Ancient of Days” sits in judgement- the fourth beast is consigned to the bonfire, and while the other three beasts escape that fate, their power and strength is taken away. Then one “like a son of man” (in other words, like a human being) comes “with the clouds of heaven”, is taken to the Ancient of Days, and is given “dominion and glory and kingship” over the world.
Naturally enough, Daniel is puzzled by this dream, and inquires about its meaning from one of the court attendants. He is told: “As for these four beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever- for ever and ever.” (verses 17 and 18).
In the years between the writing of the Book of Daniel and the life of Jesus, this vision of the “Son of Man” who would come from God to break the power of the corrupt and violent Empires that dominated the world, and to establish the reign of God’s justice, was treasured and preserved by many in the Jewish community. Whichever Empires the Book of Daniel had meant by the “four beasts”, people applied the vision to their own day, and when Rome conquered Palestine, many saw that Empire as the “fourth beast”, destined for judgement and destruction.
Jesus seems to identify himself often as this “Son of Man”, though he never explicitly says “that’s me”. When he is challenged about his right to forgive the paralysed man who is let down through the roof by his friends, he says “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins….” (Mark chapter 2, verse 10), and when he stands before the Sanhedrin court and the High Priest demands “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God”, Jesus replies, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew chapter 26, verses 63 and 64).
Just a few days earlier, Jesus and his disciples had been in the Jerusalem Temple. When they came out, the disciples looked back and admired its “beautiful stones” and rich adornments, symbols of the greatness and security of their people. Jesus warns them that all that will be destroyed and “thrown down” (Luke chapter 21, verses 5 and 6), in a time of war and great suffering, when the Roman armies will surround Jerusalem and crush it. But that time of distress, he says, will lead to “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory (verse 27). And furthermore, “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place” (verse 32, and compare Matthew chapter 24, verse 34 and Mark chapter 13, verse 30).
In Greek (the language used by the New Testament) the word “generation” (genea) has a double meaning. It can mean a race, or a people- in which case what Jesus is saying is that the Jewish people will never be destroyed or annihilated through all human history, no matter what conflicts they have to go through.
Or “generation” can mean “the people alive now”, those who share the same experience of life, and the same hopes and fears. The Hebrew words “toledoth” and “dor” (Jesus would have spoken Aramaic, which is a “modern” version of ancient Hebrew) appear to have this meaning also- (compare, for example, Genesis chapter 5, verse 1 and Psalm 90, verse 1). And when Jesus says “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark chapter 9, verse 1), he seems to have the same thing in mind- this will all happen within your lifetime.
So what does this all mean for us today? Clearly the end of all human history, and the final and complete establishment of God’s Kingdom, did not happen as a result of the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans some forty years after the time of Jesus. So does he mean that we still have to wait, some two thousand years later, for his personal return, which could happen at any time? And does this mean that through all that time we must be patient, living as witnesses to what Jesus has done, but unable to do very much about the “beasts” who dominate the world?
Or does he mean that in any (or every?) generation we should expect to see the “coming” of the Son of Man- the People of God, the New Humanity, led by Jesus, who are called to challenge the powers of injustice and violence that repeatedly destroy the life of the world, so that the world’s people can once again experience the freedom and justice of God’s love?
And does the Church always live as that People of God, or is it sometimes more concerned with its own survival and power? These are questions we all need to work out for ourselves.