Today we enter the season of Advent. We rightly think of this season in the life of the church as a preparation to celebrate Christ’s birth at Christmas, but it is more. Advent is a time of preparation—for Christmas, yes—but ultimately for the last day (Jn. 6:40), when Christ will “descend from heaven with a cry of command” (1 Thess. 4:16) to “judge the living and the dead” (2 Tim. 4:1) and dwell with his people forever in “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1–3). While the season of Advent itself is not prescribed in the Bible, the saints of old who ordered the church year recognized that it was necessary to lift our eyes above the fray of life’s struggles to watch and wait, lamps lit (Mt. 25:1) and wide awake (Mt. 24:42), for the return of Jesus Christ.
Over the centuries, the church’s musicians and poets have composed many beautiful texts and tunes for Advent that shape our minds and hearts to prepare for—and to long for—the Lord’s return. One thinks, for instance, of the plaintive petitions of “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” In the entire tradition of church music, however, there are few pieces that give voice to our expectant preparation for the Lord’s return more compellingly than the classic hymn, “Lo, He comes with clouds descending.”
The text of “Lo, He comes with clouds descending” was written by the great hymnwriter Charles Wesley (1707-1788). Its immediate poetic allure lies in the way it draws the congregation into a celebration of Christ’s return as if it were already happening, thus drawing us into an increasing anticipation and expectation of that great event. Along with its poetry, however, the enduring quality of this hymn text lies in its gospel-centeredness. Evangelical Anglican that Wesley was, his text does not miss a chance to proclaim that love’s redeeming work is done in the cross of Jesus Christ. The one who has promised to return in glory is the one who was crucified: “once for our salvation slain,” “pierced and nailed…to the tree,” who continues to bear the scars of the nails—“those dear tokens of his passion.” The final stanza is a doxological summons to praise that exults in the final and consummate reign of Christ, giving shape to our longing for that day when “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).
Advent is a time to remember that Jesus has promised to come again and to prepare to welcome him when he does. Wesley’s hymn invites us to look forward to Christ’s return with a sense of anticipation and godly triumph, knowing that the Lord’s glorious return will be none other than the full consummation of the victory he already won in the cross.