There’s something different about the early Christians, in the first few decades of the Church. There’s an eagerness, a drive, a restless desire for Christ above all things. The Church today doesn’t feel much like that. Christianity is more “Christian culture,” an underlying and contributing element of who we are and how we behave, but not dominant. It’s often not an activating force in our lives like it was for the Early Church. Christianity changed everything for the early believers—it completely upended and transformed their lives. For us, it’s just another thing we do amongst many. Guardini thinks that difference between the early and modern Church comes down to one major factor: anticipation of the Second Coming.
Simply look at how Paul writes and we can see how differently the early Church thought about this. Paul was convinced he would see the return of Christ within his lifetime. It’s why it’s so easy to paint him as anti-world and anti-flesh. His writings quite often focus on shifting our perspective from the things that pass away to the things of the eternal. In 1 Corinthians 7:32-35, for example, he says concerning marriage:
“I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.”
It’s easy to read that and come away thinking Paul is against marriage (and indeed, he’s often presented that way). But consider that Paul is expecting Christ to return imminently. At any moment, he expects Christ to arrive. Therefore, cast off all other things and focus on Christ, for the eternal is coming soon. We see this same attitude in how the early Christians gave all their possessions to the apostles, to be redistributed to the poor. This wasn’t some communist effort (as Guardini explicitly notes), but an entire community of believers who expect the eternal to arrive at any moment. This world is passing away, soon, and therefore these earthly things do not matter.
Paul in his later years, however, starts to mellow a bit. The reality that Christ might not actually return in his lifetime is starting to set in, and so he begins to say things like “I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you” (Philippians 1:23-24). He realizes he may die without seeing Christ’s return, and so he learns how to redirect his zeal and eagerness, and channel it into the lifetime walk of sanctification and evangelization that is asked of each of us. He was expecting a trumpet blast, but learned that he may never see hear it.
That zeal never went away, mind you. His anticipation of Christ’s return is always the driving force behind his words and his actions. What he does with that zeal just becomes tempered with time and age and wisdom. For us now, that anticipation seems to be gone entirely.
How often do you think about the Second Coming, truly? How often do you consider “If Christ returned tomorrow, what would I do?” Surely if you knew, for certain, that Christ’s return was imminent, it would change everything and you would completely alter your lifestyle and attitude and devotion. But what if you knew, for certain, that Christ won’t return for another hundred years, or a thousand? Would you change your behavior then?
The thing is, when Christ comes ultimately shouldn’t matter as to how we react. We can never know when it will be; only the Father knows. But the anticipation of it ought to be what drives us, always, as it did the early Christians. The Second Coming should be the foremost thought in our mind, the return of our Lord, which could happen at any moment or a thousand years after we have already died. Paul didn’t give up his hope. He learned how to use his hope to engage with his brothers and sisters in Christ more fully, how to drive and lead them in their mutual hope. That anticipation of the imminent return of our Savior changed his life every single day. We ought to have that same anticipation.
Every day of Lent, I am writing a reflection piece on two chapters of "The Lord" by Romano Guardini. If you'd like to read or follow along, you can find the full calendar of where we're at below, or Click Here for the main landing page.