St. Thomas on the Coming of Christ
During this season of Advent, my work with the Aquinas Institute has had me reading St. Thomas’s commentary on Isaiah. As St. Thomas himself notes in his prologue, “The subject matter of this book is principally the appearance of the Son of God: hence in the Church it is read during the season of Advent.” He goes on to comment that there are three appearances of Christ: (1) his coming in the flesh, (2) his coming into the heart by faith, and (3) his coming at the end of time in glory.
This idea of the “three comings” was already venerable by St. Thomas’s day, and had been given classic expression by Bernard of Clairvaux. In fact, the reality of Christ’s “three comings” undergirds the ancient tradition of the three “spiritual senses” of Scripture: Christ’s past coming in the flesh grounds the allegorical sense, his present coming into the heart by faith supports the moral sense, and future his coming in glory leads to the anagogical sense. St. Thomas’s threefold division of Christ’s advent offers nothing new.
But he goes on to expand creatively on the classic “three comings,” offering a mini-treatise on Christ’s advent. He starts with the notion of prophecy. Prophecy has to do with seeing what is far from us, St. Thomas argues, and indeed what Isaiah foresaw was still “far off” in his day. But it was “far off” in three ways:
- Christ was “far off” from us, because he was exalted on high in equality of majesty with the Father.
- Christ’s Incarnation was “far off” from our knowledge because it was a mystery hidden in the Father’s secret plan for history.
- Christ was also “far off” because he was “delayed in the expectation of the fathers,” and a great deal of time would elapse after Isaiah before he came.
What does this have to do with the “three comings”? St. Thomas’s next trio brings out the relationship, because he argues that what was “far off” in Isaiah’s day has now “come near”:
- “The highest has been made the lowest,” he says, because “the Word was made flesh” (John 1:14). Obviously, this is Christ’s first “coming,” his coming in the flesh. Christ is no longer “far off,” because he has “drawn near” in the humility of his humanity.
- What was hidden in the Father’s secret plan has been revealed, because “the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him” (John 1:18). Notice that this revelation is only available to those who have faith, corresponding to Christ’s second “coming” according to the traditional schema. Christ’s Incarnation is no longer hidden, because the Father’s secret plan has been revealed to those who believe.
- Regarding the lapse of time, St. Thomas says that “what was delayed has begun even now to be possessed by the saints in glory.” Here one would have expected St. Thomas to say that Israel’s long wait for the Messiah was ended with Christ’s appearance in the flesh. Instead, he points out how what we await at Christ’s final coming in glory is in a certain way already present. In other words, he lines up this third way of “drawing near” with Christ’s third “coming”.
St. Thomas is not done yet. He argues next that Isaiah’s vision has to do with “the end,” and this time he lines up his points explicitly with the “three comings”:
- “For the first appearance was at the end of the law.” When Christ lived, died, and rose in the flesh, the curtain of the Temple was torn and the world of the Mosaic Law ended.
- “The second appearance, however, was at the end of idolatry.” In other words, when the nations received Christ in faith, it spelled the end of the ancient pagan world.
- “And the third [coming] will be at the end of all misery” because, when Christ comes in glory at the end of the natural world, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, and death shall be no more” (Revelation 21:4).
This is all very lovely, but how did St. Thomas arrive at these three sets of three? Note their relationship to one another: the first has to do with the past, when Christ’s coming was “far off,” the second has to do with how Christ’s coming has “drawn near,” and the third has to do with “the end”. It is the simple past-present-future schema of the “three comings of Christ”. That is to say, St. Thomas used the structure of the “three comings” as a guide to meditating on the “three comings”.
Upcoming volumes. The long-delayed Supplement to the Summa is scheduled for release on August 15, 2017. We took extra time on this project to align each text from the Supplement with the part of the Sentences from which it was taken, and to include a cross reference and more information about how it was written.
Book IV of the Sentences is also scheduled for release on August 15, 2017. Rather than rushing to print, we paused to prepare an introduction to the text and to the translation.
That same date will also see the release of Volume 55 of the Opera Omnia, a collection of smaller works that have been found useful for college courses.
New technology. Our big challenge right now is to design eBooks that work smoothly with bilingual texts. We plan to publish St. Thomas’s works in PDF, ePub, Nook and Kindle formats. Look for another post about this, because we will be asking for beta testers.
We have completely redesigned our online Aquinas text reader. The site will soon include Aquinas’s Opera Omnia in Latin along with as much English as we can legally provide. Users find the new site easier to navigate, and before long the site will offer word searches in Latin and English. A mobile-friendly mode is also in the works.
Business progress. We have submitted an application for another NEH grant in order to complete Books II and III of the Sentences. We will find out whether we have received the grant in August of 2017.
The transition to Ingram is almost complete. We will begin to see the difference in January, and the full import for the Aquinas Institute should be clear by March.
Donations. We have updated our system for accepting online donations. It is easier to find and easier to use, and the new system helps us with our record keeping. Please consider an end-of-year gift. All these new projects and opportunities mean we need to hire more help!