“Hey, man, what’s up?” By the time I was a boy in the 1960s, “man” had become the generic honorific bestowed on everyone, man, woman, and child, from Woodstock to Haight-Ashbury. Everyone was “man.” “Sir,” “Mr.,” and “Ma’am,” and other more polite forms of address held on in some parts of the country, but “man” as a slang term had definitely arrived. Later, “man” as slang would be challenged by “dude” or even “girlfriend” as a familiar form of address between friends and strangers; probably by now these have been superseded by some other form of address. But in its day, “man” was the great equalizer.
There was also another side to this. In the movie “The Big Lebowski,” the term “dude” morphed into “The Dude,” a superlative form attached to a character possessed of the quintessential nature of “dudeness” raised to the Nth degree. Or think of “The Man” in the movie “School of Rock”: another superlative that gets invoked as a personification of oppressive force, not attached to a particular person but existing out there in the ether as oppression itself. In the movie, “The Man” was out to get you and to put you down.
“The Son of Man” in our Gospel today traces a similar kind of path as “man” and “dude.” In its origin “son of man” was a general descriptive term for any human being. A son of man was an heir of Adam and Eve, simply a member of the human race. The term was not just simple, it was humble: A-dam being a designation for a creature made from dust who would eventually return to dust, as had been foretold when Adam and Eve were banished from the garden.
Like “man” or “dude” it was a familiar form of address: to be called a son of man was a sign of equality in the sight of God. It signified that you were the heir to a great and common catastrophe: the fall of humanity and the exit from paradise. In short, “son of man” was the great equalizer of its day. To be a son of man was to be a sinner like everyone else.
What we see in our Gospel is this humble term raised to the Nth degree. Now it’s attached to a particular person, a superlative type: “the Son of Man.” Here is one who comes at the end of all things to reverse the process set in motion through the earlier catastrophe. If things went wrong through the son of man (Adam) who turned us all to dust, humbling the human race; now at the end the Son of Man will come with great power to restore us to glory. This Son of Man will not be a figure of oppression but a force for liberation.
Christians quickly came to identify the Son of Man with Jesus himself. St. Paul calls Jesus “the last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45), the One who becomes the source of resurrection life for those who are perishing. “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:47), he writes in First Corinthians. For St. Paul, the Son of Man has been raised to the Nth degree, and he comes to raise us up as well.
Jesus himself in our Gospel foretells the coming of this Son of Man. “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory” (Mk. 13:26). The key to this superlative term is Jesus’ reference back to the vision of Daniel, where the prophet sees “one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven” (Dan. 7:13). “To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan. 7:14), as it says in the prophecy. His kingdom will have no end, as we say in the Creed.
The clouds that accompany the Son of Man in Daniel’s prophecy, and which Jesus foretells in our Gospel, are the clue to the meaning of his coming again. The clouds are not there as a weather report, but have deeper significance. When God meets with Moses on Mount Sinai, his descent to the mountaintop is attended by darkness, cloud, and fire. Moses has to enter the cloud in order to meet with God. Then, when God comes to make his dwelling in the Temple in Jerusalem, it says in First Kings, “a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:10-11).
Jesus, the Son of Man, is himself the presence of the glory of the Lord. He came in his own time to be born of the Virgin Mary, born as one of us in human midst; he will come again at the end of all things so that the glory of the Lord will fill the whole earth. “Hey, man, what’s up?”, you might ask. This Advent, what’s up is Jesus Christ himself, coming again in glory.