The Winter Pascha, Chapter 20: The Two Comings of Christ
The following is an excerpt from The Winter Pascha, by Fr. Thomas Hopko
During the Christmas prefeast season, the connection between the first coming of God's Son as the Suffering Servant, the Lamb of God who takes upon Himself the sins of the World, and His second coming as the triumphant King and Judge of the universe is not overtly stressed in any of the church services. But it is clearly implied in virtually all of the songs, hymns and lections. The Old Testament prophecies read at the hours, vespers and matins on the day before the Nativity quite specifically proclaim the messianic age which Jesus is born to bring, but which He will manifest in power only at the end of history. And several verses which are sung during the season directly refer to the interrelationship between the Master's two comings.
Christ our Judge commands us to be vigilant.
We wait expectantly for His visitation,
For He comes to be born of a Virgin.
At Your awesome second coming, O Christ,
Number me with the sheep at Your right hand,
For You took up Your abode in the flesh to save us.
At Your first coming to us, O Christ,
You desired to save the race of Adam;
When You come again to judge us,
Show mercy on those who honor Your Holy Nativity.1
The Christmas prefeast hymns, especially the canons, consciously refer to the hymns of the services of Holy Week before the springtime Pascha. In many of them, Easter paschal themes are replaced by Winter paschal themes, with just a few words being changed in each verse. Thus, what is effected at these services is a sort of "triple connection." Christ's Nativity, with His Epiphany in the Jordan, is referred to His Passion and Resurrection, which is then referreed to His Coming at the end of the ages. In making the triple connection, the entire Mystery of Christ is placed before the believers for their contemplation and communion.
Christians live between the two comings of Christ. They remember His first coming to be sacrificed. They anticipate His second coming to reign. This is vividly portrayed in traditional Orthodox church buildings where the "royal gates" of the icon screen in front of the altar table are flanked by the icons of the Theotokos and Child on the one side, and the Lord Jesus in glory on the other. To the uninitiated it may seem as though these are simply pictures of Mary and Jesus put on the same level. This is not so. The icons which frame the Orthodox altar are images of the two comings of Christ. Mary is not alone in her icon; she is holding the Christ Child, who is not shown as a baby, but as the Son of God incarnate "in the form of a slave... in the likeness of men" (Phil 2:7). This is the icon of Christ's first coming. And the icon on the right of the doors is not a picture of Jesus as He was on the earth. It is His image in glory as King and Lord, the icon of His second coming.
The two comings of Christ are held together in Christian thought, action, and prayer at all times. They cannot be separated. When they are, it is the end of Christian faith, life and worship. The first coming without the second is a meaningless tragedy. The second coming without the first is an absurd impossibility. Jesus is born to bring God's kingdom. He dies to prove His kingship. He rises to establish his reign. He comes again in glory to share it with His people. In the kingdom of God there are no subjects. All rule with the risen Messiah. He came, and is coming, for this purpose alone.
1Ode 9 of the canon of compline of the second day of the prefeast of the Nativity, December 21