It’s somewhat misleading to speak of a “Second Coming” of Christ, of Christ “returning” or “coming again”. Such expressions go back to words of the two angels who appear when the disciples have seen Christ going into heaven, when he was “being lifted up”, a cloud taking him out of their sight. At this ascension, the angels become visible to them, standing by them and asking why they are standing there looking into heaven. “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him going into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
“He will come in the same way as you saw him going into heaven.” You saw him going from you – you will see him coming to you. In essence, this Ascension experience has to do with their “seeing”, their ability to perceive; it doesn’t say anything about Christ departing and returning. Their eyes can’t follow him anymore now that he is carried up into heaven because “a distance” has grown between them, as Luke puts it in his gospel (Lk 24:51).2 Once more, it will be a question of human perception when “a cloud will bring him into your sight” – as we might paraphrase and conclude what these angels say. He has not really gone away – he has been “seen to go”, and in the same way he will be “seen to come”. It’s a question of perception, of awareness even.
In the Gospels, in the words of Christ himself, in times of earthly and also of cosmic disturbances, there will “appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven”, and people on earth “will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven” (in Matthew’s version, 24:30). In this way, Christ answers a question about his parousia, which is Greek for his “presence”, his “arrival”, his “coming”, and about the close of the age (24:3). – Would it be possible that Christ speaks about the “coming of the Son of man” when he speaks about the way he himself will once more enter human perception, human awareness, as anyhow he is “with you always, to the close of the age” (28:20)? As “lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west”, as “were the days of Noah” when “the flood came and swept them all away”, so will be this presence, the awareness of the presence of the Son of man (24:27 and 37-39) by human beings able to see him.
The “Son of Man” in his coming: are these indeed the words Christ uses when He wants to signal that human beings are starting to become aware of His cosmic presence – of Him who had become the “God of man” through death and resurrection? For many of the apostles, his contemporaries, this coming was almost at hand, was “coming” soon”, in the near future; in line with the general apocalyptic mood of the century. Yes, soon indeed he will be with us again! – that’s what they felt.
This urgency was for instance felt by Paul when he invoked an encompassing apocalyptic picture: “We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord will himself descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (I Thess 4:15-17). Or by James, who uses an amazing picture of preparation: “Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it, until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (5:7-8). “Establishing your hearts”: this would mean preparing your hearts by “strengthening”, by “buttressing”. The Greek word, for instance, is used about the way the abyss is there between the living and the dead, in the story of the rich man and poor Lazarus (Luke 16:26), or of the way Christ “set” his face to go steadfastly to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). – Let your hearts receive both the early and the late rain!