I’m back, after a long hiatus, driven partly by being extremely busy, and partly by sheer laziness. Things have been busy at work, as well as an assortment of Christmas activities. This is my first Christmas as an Anglican, and this past Sunday we had a service known as the Lessons and Carols, in which passages of Scripture were read, with numerous songs in between, both traditional Christmas carols and novel choral numbers.
While listening to the lyrics of the songs and the content of the Scriptures read, I found myself reminded of the significance of the Advent season.
And I mean more than a simple “Jesus is the reason for the season.” While certainly true, it does not, in my opinion, begin to truly touch on just how significant the whole concept is to so many things.
Now, I’m not going to get on one of those “people forget the true meaning of Christmas” soapboxes. I’m from a family where Christmas happens full-tilt. There is an ever-growing assortment of decorations, wreaths, scented candles, a fully decorated tree, and tons of candy and cookies from kind souls at church. We love Christmas. And yes, I know that the particular manner in which Christmas is celebrated comes from the Roman Saturnalia festival and ancient Germanic pagan traditions. I don’t care. Early Christians decided to make the celebration of Christ’s birth coincide with Saturnalia, and the tradition has been handed down to us.
With this caveat out of the way, let me begin:
(1) The Advent story illustrates that we must have faith in the fulfillment of God’s promises of salvation and of our care.
At the human Fall, God promised to send a figure who would liberate us from our bondage to sin. And throughout the Old Testament, the promise is reiterated again and again to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, the prophets, etc. Again and again, the people of Israel would fall into disbelief, and need reminders of their coming redemption. Yet this event, the birth of Christ, was the culmination of these promises, yet in a very low-key way. As the first verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem says,
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
How easily we forget that our hopes continue to be met in our Savior. All often I forget the promise of his Second Coming, wherein I will be redeemed from sin once and for all. The time of Advent is a great time to reflect on this.
(2) The story demonstrates that God often does His most glorious deeds through those that society has forgotten, or, in some cases, despises.
Think about that. In the first place, the fact that God would become a human at all demonstrates this point. In Islamic doctrine, the suggestion that God would take on human characteristics is considered blasphemous, because they believe that this would take away his moral perfection. That God would become a man at all speaks volumes at his willingness to become one of us in order to save us.
Consider the narrative of the story itself. God chose to be brought into the world by a young lower class girl from Nazareth (with a nearby garrison of horny Roman soldiers, which would arouse suspicions towards her) with so many other more glamorous options available, such as the ruling house of the Jewish priests, or even the household of Caesar himself. Then, the woman carrying the Christ-child had to ride hundreds of miles on a donkey to Bethlehem to give birth. I’ve been to Bethlehem, it’s a hilly town outside Jerusalem. It’s very hilly and rocky, which meant her ride would have been uncomfortable. It’s also not the most highbrow town either. Adding insult to injury, the “inn” was full. What this actually means was that the little cave-type place with beds carved into the rock, had all of its beds full, and thus Joseph and pregnant Mary had to make do on the floor, where the travelers’ livestock would rest. Their was undoubtedly plenty of animal business on the ground, and it certainly would have smelled horrible. Then he was placed in a trough that animals were intended to eat out of. Not exactly a pleasant birthplace for, well, God Incarnate. Finally, the first people to be told of this, other than Mary and Joseph’s relatives, was a group of shepherds outside the town. Being a shepherd in those days made you among the lowest of the low, looked down upon by much of society. But God didn’t care, He first revealed this miracle to these people.
May this inspire us to remember the least of these in our society, both at Christmas and year-round, as Jesus was “a friend to sinners and tax collectors”. Yet even more profoundly, we fallen humans are all the least of these before our holy God.
(3) Advent is reminder of humanity’s need for physical, social, and spiritual redemption.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.
This verse of Joy to the World illustrates a very important truth: both the physical and spiritual worlds yearn for redemption, to be fundamentally changed to exist in accordance with God’s truth.
After the Fall, when God spoke to Adam and Eve, He did hint at the need for spiritual redemption (“He will crush your head”). However, part of the curse was physical: their food supply would be plagued by thistles and thorns, and bringing new humans into the world would be painful for the woman. The family structure was negatively altered, as men began exhibiting domineering, dictatorial tendencies, and women began showing manipulative traits (though the reverse also exists).
Throughout the biblical narrative, the need for both earthly and spiritual redemption is spoken to.
The patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) are often faced with frustrating outside forces (Abraham threatened by the army from Sodom, Isaac by Ishmael’s tormenting, Jacob by Esau and Laban, etc), yet each of them also has deep flaws that God constantly addresses (Abraham lies several times and also sleeps with Hagar to try to make God’s promises occur, Isaac favors Esau, Jacob lies to his father and also tries to swindle his unlce). The story of the Exodus speaks both to the oppression felt by the Jewish people at the hands of the Egyptians, yet also the the moral bankruptcy of much of the Jewish nation, including, at times, of Moses himself. The stories of the judges are likewise full of oppression at the hands of various groups of people, yet the people are being judged by God for their idolatrous, adulterous ways. The prophets, who spoke in the later days of the kings, very much addressed both the horrible treatment at the hands of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Medo-Persians, but also the extremely immoral, indifferent ways of the Israelites. Hence the prophets, particularly Isaiah, spoke passionately of the coming redemption.
Jesus was likewise born into this type of reality. The pain and humilitation experienced at the hands of the powerful Romans was terrible, and a daily reality. Yet an internal look at Jewish society at the time was also quite sobering. The Pharisees exemplified an unparallel self-righteousness, and saw salvation as avoiding violation of literally thousands of technicalities, but had little true faith. The Sadducees and priests run essentially what amounted to a collaborationist extortion operation. Some Jews openly were willing to enter Roman service and openly swindle their fellow Jews through wrongful taxation. The zealots wanted to violently overthrow the Romans, and in some cases killed innocent people.
What a similar world we live in.
Thus, Christmas ought to inspire us to, through our lives and words, bring the good news of redemption to the world. Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah, and the world’s hope for salvation, and a system that oppresses none.
The light of Christmas came into the world:
No longer do we walk in darkness.
The light of Christ will never go out:
Noonger need we be afraid
The light of Christ is the life of the world:
No longer need we stumble and fall.
Lord Jesus, bring light to our hearts, our homes and our nation
this Christmas and always. Amen.
-an Anglican Christmas prayer
I would like to wish my readers a very Merry Christas and a safe and happy New Year.