Advent looks back to celebrate the coming of the Son of God in human flesh. As Advent lectionary readings show, God comes in many ways, and so Advent also looks ahead to God’s future interventions in history, and especially to his final advent at the last day.
Those last-day readings present a consistent picture of final judgment. Jesus doesn’t separate sheep and goats because of what they believe, or because the sheep have received the imputed righteousness of Christ and the goats haven’t, or because sheep are good church-going folks and the goats sleep in on Sunday mornings. The difference lies in the kind of life each has lived. As Paul says, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). The Bible never says anything else.
There’s no better time than Advent to consider what sort of life will pass Christ’s ultimate inspection. The judgment scene in Matthew 25 answers the question: The sheep inherit the kingdom because they feed Jesus when he’s hungry, clothe him when he’s the naked, visit him when he’s sick and imprisoned, welcome him when he’s a stranger. They minister to Jesus by serving the least of his brothers. As the prophet Micah put it, the sheep do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
Matthew 25 echoes Isaiah’s call to true fasting (Isaiah 58). That too is a judgment day passage, a warning about an approaching advent of God. Isaiah condemns the people of Judah as hypocrites because there’s a rift between their piety and their daily lives. On the same day they humble themselves with fasting, they act as taskmasters to their servants. They spend their spare time on fast days fighting each other. They’re supposed to afflict their souls, but instead, like Pharaoh, they afflict their neighbors. They fast with their fists. At the temple, they’re Jews, pleading with Yahweh for justice. When they go home, they live like Egyptians.
If they want Yahweh to listen to them, Isaiah says, they need to open everything: Loose bonds, free the captive, break the yoke of oppression. They need to open their fists so they can unlock doors and untie knots.
They need to open their fists so they can give. This is Yahweh’s fast: Share bread with the hungry. Shelter the homeless. When a naked man approaches, don’t pretend you don’t see him; give him clothes. Satisfy the desires of the afflicted, and give him the liberty that he longs for. Be a spring of water to the parched world. In Hebrew, Isaiah 58:10 commands Judah to “give your soul to the soul of the hungry.” Charity can be a way of keeping people at a distance, especially needy people who make us uncomfortable. Yahweh says it’s not enough to give your bread without offering friendship and fellowship. Yahweh’s fast requires a self-gift. He calls the people of Judah to pour their souls out to heal emaciated and wounded souls.
Yahweh is the first to keep his own fast. He sets the pattern. He opened his hand to loose Israel’s chains in Egypt, to let oppressed Hebrews go free, and to break the yoke of Pharaoh. He shared the bread of heaven with Israel in the wilderness and gave them water from the rock. He clothed them with glory. He poured out his soul to refresh his people.
And the God of Israel has done all this again and in full in the Advent of the Son. Adam saw he was naked and hid himself. God saw Adam naked and came so near that he eventually took Adam’s naked flesh to himself. He didn’t turn away in disgust but made himself bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh. In Christ, God doesn’t drop bread from heaven and keep his distance. In the Advent of the Son, he gives himself as bread, pouring out his soul to satisfy the hungry and thirsty. Jesus tears off heavy yokes and gives his easy yoke, his light burden. In baptism, Christ becomes clothing for the naked, for all who are baptized have put on Christ.
Advent issues a call to repentance, and Matthew 25 and Isaiah 58 trace the shape of the penitent life. Judah is called to mirror what Yahweh does, for the disciples of Jesus, filled with his Spirit, are called to live lives that bear the marks of the life of Jesus. Such a life will pass inspection at the final advent because, by keeping Yahweh’s fast, sheep prove to be what they are—true children of the living God.
~ Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History, forthcoming from Baylor University Press. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found at First Things.