Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Advent makes Christmas

This comes with the usual qualifiers: you don't have to celebrate Christmas, and you don't have to observe Advent.  For various reasons, I think both are useful things to do.  But I'm happy that I can observe the season to the Lord, and you can abstain from observing to the Lord, and all will be well.  What I'm really talking about here is the concepts, or the realities, represented by Christmas and Advent - though I confess I don't know of any better way to keep them in the mind than the liturgical observances.  Anyway...

The Christmas story is constantly exposed to two great dangers.  On the one hand, there is the danger that it might be reduced to mere myth.  For those of us raised in Western culture, even in its post-Christian guise, the story is extremely familiar, and we were mostly exposed to it as children.  Thanks to the phenomenon of the nativity play, or the school carol service, the Christmas story has taken on a childish feel; all little donkey and no crying he makes.  Throw in some fantastical elements - angelic choirs, virgin birth - and you've got a myth.  A story of enduring significance, of deep meaning, perhaps even in a sense of great truth - but ultimately not challenging.  Not challenging because myths arise out of human experience, and can at the end of the day very easily be cashed out as something very human.  The Christmas myth tells us that, in a way, God dwells with all of us; the Christmas myth expresses the hope of universal brotherhood and peace on earth.  Annually we tell ourselves the story to remind ourselves of these deep realities.  We can live with the myth, even be enriched by it.

On the other hand, there is the danger that the Christmas story might become for us mere history.  This is more of a danger for those of us who take the biblical accounts seriously, who claim in some sense to 'believe' the Christmas story.  In a culture which largely reads the Christmas story through the lens of myth, we feel the need to stand up and say 'no, this really happened'.  There was an actual baby, real shepherds, wise men (not kings, it doesn't say they were kings!) with tangible gifts.  At the end of the day, I think this approach also strips the Christmas story of its challenge.  The birth of Jesus becomes simply one thing - albeit a fairly remarkable thing - alongside all the other things whic have happened.  We mark it every year by asserting its historicity, quibbling over any legendary elements that might have crept in over the long years of re-telling, establishing the core of 'what really happened'.  But it's still just a thing that happened, in the past.  Past occurrences don't confront or challenge me.  Of course events in history may have shaped the present world, but they are themselves trapped, back there and then.  We can live in the knowledge of this history, perhaps informed and enlightened by it.

The emphasis of the Advent season is not, despite popular perception, on counting down to Christmas.  It's actually about waiting for something more significant than an annual celebration: it's about waiting for Jesus.  Advent reminds us that he is coming, and that the one who is coming is the one who previously came.  It puts us in an eschatological frame of mind.  That is to say, we're thinking about ultimate things, the end, the final judgement, the redemption and restoration of creation.  And it turns out that is the best frame of mind to approach Christmas, because according to the New Testament the incarnation of the Word of God is not merely myth - a universal truth of humanity - or merely history - an important event in the series of world events; rather, the Christmas story is the story of the end of the ages.  It is a genuinely new thing, the first really new thing there has been since the creation of the world, not contingent on anything that has gone before, not arising out of the human condition or out of human history.  It is eschatology through and through.

And that is challenging, because it means that Christmas calls us, as we consider the baby who came, to also look to the horizon and see the King who is coming.  It tells us that the world is changed, whether we can see it or not, and that we are called to live in the tension of the salvation that is fully accomplished but not universally seen, the now and the not yet.  It confronts us with the fact that the child in the manger is our contemporary, that he is now on the throne of the universe.  He is not merely a factor in our being as human, or a factor in our history as a race, but he is the factor in our present being, the One who determines who we are and what our world is about.  He is the Lord.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Daniel. Have a blessed Advent.