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Advent: A Dummy's Guide
How To Not Be A Scrooge
What is Advent?
Ad· vent | \ ˈad-ˌvent
Middle English, borrowed from Medieval Latin adventus, going back to Latin, “arrival, appearance,” from adven-, variant stem of advenīre “to arrive”
Definitions of Advent
1. Advent marks the beginning of a new liturgical year, starting four Sundays before Christmas; it is so named because it is a time which commemorates the Incarnation and Christ’s Holy Nativity; it is also a season of waiting in hope for the coming of Christ in his final glory at which time he will raise the dead, judge the world in righteousness, and own the scoffers with history’s biggest “I-told-ya-so.”
a. In most liturgical traditions, Advent is “observed” rather than “celebrated.” It is viewed as a quasi-penitential season. Appropriate times of fasting, prayer, and self-subjugation to Hallmark Channel Holiday Specials are acceptable forms of penance and devotion. Ugly sweaters are marks of piety; the modern equivalent of sackcloth.
b. Purple and Blue are the traditional colors of this liturgical season. Some insist on purple. According to the earliest records, such persons were called fusspots, from the Old English, styks up thar ahrses. Blue is the color of moderates; the color not being as deep, it represents a lighter wound to the body of flesh since it denotes a lighter form of fasting than that of Lent. Mostly it means only having a single shot of whiskey in one’s eggnog.
c. Advent is a time when low-church Evangelicals are routinely harassed for the sake of the One, Holy, Catholick, and Apostolic Faith. Their carols are silenced, their holiday cheer is treated like the pagan hell that it is, and their lighted trees are sometimes captured and held hostage until 11:30 P.M. on Christmas Eve. This is all especially hard on the Baptists, who have “Hanging of the Greens” and multiple viewings of Elf and Ernest Saves Christmas as their only annual forays into liturgy.
d. Advent is customarily observed by singing the two or three Advent hymns we actually know: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel; Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus; and whatever that other one is. One forgets…
e. Advent is observed by all of those who truly love Jesus, spanning the doctrinal divides of Christendom: Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, Retailers.
f. Some people make wreaths and light candles. I do not make wreaths. But some people do make wreaths, ok. I just do the candles and the solemnity.
Proper Advent observance is the subject of more than a little controversy. There are those who would have it be something of a "Lent Lite," and others who view it more like the "40 Days of Christmas." While Advent is a time of spiritual preparation, it is not a time for morbid introspection and pharisaical navel-gazing.
People are prone to extremes. This is no less true for followers of Jesus. We have a tendency to erect walls where God has built bridges. We find fault where God has strewn His favor. God has wedded His creation and His children together, but we are constantly trying to break up this sacred marriage. We would do well to remember the divine declaration, “what God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
But it just doesn't make sense to us. We can’t fathom how that which is spiritual can peacefully coexist with that which is material. The main reason this gives us fits is because we really don’t understand either of the two. We think that “spiritual” means “ethereal, abstract, and intangible” over against “material” which means “solid, concrete, and tangible.” This is simply to misunderstand the nature of the world which God has made. These strike us as opposites which are opposed to one another. But if they are opposed, they are only opposed the same way that your thumb and forefinger are opposed, and for precisely the same reason—so that you may be able to grasp things between them. Our joy will never be full until we are able to see the two, peacefully agreed, walking hand in hand.
God formed the world by His Word—it is thus a spiritual material. God also forms our worship through His Word—it is thus a material spirituality. In the former, He grants us life and gives the privilege of enjoying Him through the world and its stuff. In the latter, He grants us life and gives us the privilege of enjoying Him through His Word and its sacraments. Both are concrete. Both are tangible. Both are given for His ultimate glory and our everlasting joy.
The World, Stuff, and Lasting Pleasure
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us that, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God, and it will flame out like shook foil.” That is, the world is bursting with the glory of God—the perpetual overflow of His excellency. The majesty of God is only opaque to those who close their eyes and refuse to see it. From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, His glory is displayed. Every morning, the sun rises from his slumbering place like a bridegroom leaving his chamber on his wedding day, rejoicing as a strong man to run a race. Each day, as he strolls across the solar system, he heralds his message of the glory of the Triune God. And everyone hears it. So the more we learn to see the sun, the more we learn to see the splendor of God. The same goes for daffodils and dark chocolate. The thicker the world becomes before our eyes and under our feet, the thinner the veil that hides God’s glory from our gaze.
The world really is translucent, and it is such by being really solid. If the world is that which enables us to see God’s glory, then those who try to help this process along by treating the world as ephemeral and wispy are making a grave error. The world does not need to be diluted to help God’s glory shine through. Do you glorify a jeweler by smashing his diamonds?
Focusing on the world as it is, without reference to Him, does not glorify Him. But seeing what He has done, the way He has done it, with matter packed tight, does glorify Him. This is why Christians shouldn’t attempt to climb up to the Beatific Vision by means of a material ladder in order to then kick the ladder away. The ladder is how we got there! We will always have bodies, and God will always speak to us in this way. Even in eternity we will have our senses. The only difference is that both they and the world will be infinitely enhanced. C.S. Lewis spoke of them being even more concrete.
This means that we should enjoy the Giver by enjoying His good gifts to us , and do so with gratitude. This is the essence of spirituality. We know this instinctively. We know the beauty of that first glimmer of sunshine breaking dawn in the east. We know the pleasure of feeling the warm sand between our toes as we stroll along the beach, while gulls overhead wing their way in flight, singing out their songs of praise. We know the blessedness of a grandmother’s gentle embrace and the integrity of a grandfather's handshake. We know the joy of a baby’s giggle and the humor of his first awkward steps. We know the thrill of wide-eyed wonder, the satisfaction of a hard day's labor, and the rejuvenation of a good night's sleep. We know the smell of frying bacon and brewing coffee. We know the potency of straight bourbon and the way a roaring fireplace fills up a cold room on a wintery night. We know the uproarious laughter of friends and the soft sting of their slaps on the back. We know the melody of Beethoven’s symphonies and the serene music of a puppy's snore. We know the way that a baseball fits neatly in our hands and the way that a hippopotamus doesn’t. We know the peace of God’s pardon. We know the hope of resurrection day. We know the love of God in Christ. We know that ultimately all of our lists utterly fail. And if we know anything at all, we know that we have a profound duty to say thank you to someone. Such is solid joy through the world, stuff, and lasting pleasure.
The Word, Sacraments, and Lasting Treasure
The things which we have learned about enjoying God through the world must not be forgotten when we gather to worship. Our joy is no less real when it comes to us through Word and Sacrament than it is when it comes to us through the world and stuff.
When we gather for worship we are gathering together in another dimension, another concrete dimension, created by the Word. And as we gather, we are reminded that we are there because at some point in the middle of history the Word that formed us put on skin and joined us in the world. The Incarnation is the greatest proof that no animosity exists between the material and the spiritual.
We gather in a Word-formed world. We gather in the name of the Word made flesh. We gather with others who are just as visible and tangible as we are in order to lay hold upon the intangible. We do this by rejoicing in the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of our earthy, incarnate Lord.
Our joy is increased as we hold the Word in our hands, sing it with our lips, hear it in our ears, witness it in water, and taste it in bread and wine. Which is the material and which is the spiritual now? We have solid joy because, in gathered worship, we are able to grasp and cling to the Word present in our midst. We can take the promises of God, the very power of the world to come, and put them in our mouths and find them sweet to our taste. And all of this reminds us that the next world is even more real than this one. John Newton was right when he wrote those immortal words, “Solid joys and lasting treasures, none but Zion’s children know.”
God gives us a world and He grants us worship. We lift them up to Him in gratitude and He gets all the glory. But He turns right around and gives them back again for our unspeakable joy. Solid joy. Indestructible joy.
It is just this attitude that should be cultivated throughout the season of Advent. Joyful expectancy for the coming of our Lord as we wait in the light of his initial coming. As we think of it as a period preparation, let it be like the preparation before a wedding—full of laughter and nervous anticipation—rather than preparation for an execution. Even as we contemplate the sober reality of the coming, final judgment we do so with the settled conviction that the Judge has already been judged in our place.
So keep a keen eye on your Advent Calendar like one who is awaiting her nuptials. Eat your piece of chocolate week by week, enjoying the goodness of God poured abundantly on this good earth, knowing that a real feast is just around the corner.
Following His Star: Travelling East with Our Man from Edinburgh
In reading the work of Thomas F. Torrance I have learned the value of not only looking backward in order to go forward, but also of looking eastward. When the temptation for young men to go west is as strong as it often is, one has to fight the tendency to overcorrect at the first glimmer of light from the east. Many have done this only to end up like poor Icarus. Torrance helps us to keep our wax wings intact. He demonstrates a method of appropriation that doesn’t end in complete dissolution.
One such place he has informed my thinking regards the ever surprising doctrine of the incarnation of God. At Torrance’s prodding, Nazareth has become as metropolitan in my mind as Jerusalem; the peripheral has become the epicenter. It was a Scotsman with a Byzantine accent that beckoned me to peer into the cradled mystery and find in it a fount of perpetual novelty. The strange goings-on in an undisturbed womb forever upset the world of gods and men. By entering into the creation in the likeness of a creature, the Creator would turn the whole of creation inside out. We have come to refer to that phenomenon as “salvation,” for by it God delivered us from our infernal self-absorption—that unnatural posture of soul which was gnarled up toward itself with eyes ever averted from the faciem Dei. In the Incarnation the Word spoke health to the twisted heart of humanity. The divine eloquence of the Word Enfleshed was heard before it was ever spoken in the world; indeed, it was ever spoken in eternity. God’s forever “yes” for a world crying “no” would be wrapped in flesh, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and wrapped in every promise of God; each layer sewn tight with those sweet words, “yes and amen.”
Ultimately the incarnation spelled the resolution of our estrangement from our Father. Our long exile was at its end. The rumors were not true; you can go home again. The wise woman from Tekoa was right: we were as water spilt upon the ground, but God has devised means whereby his banished be not expelled from him. Bethlehem marked a reconciliation of cosmic proportions. There, between ox and ass, humanity and divinity were joined together in One Hallowed Person. Behold the mystery of Immanuel—God with us! Jesus Christ constituted the unification of divine transcendence and human immanence; the Untouchable Otherness now stretches forth ten fingers and toes and lays hold upon the world of men!
But this is more than mere reconciliation; this is a revolution! This is not simply a return to Eden; this marks a new Genesis, the first day of a new creation. Whereas the first Adam was relationally near to God and covenantally bound to the Father, Jesus Christ is at once very God of very God and true man of true man. ‘For us men and our salvation,’ Christ actualized a unity of divinity and humanity that is as ontologically real as it is relational. He could effect our redemption because the incarnation made him fit to do so. He is thus the One who is apart from us as the divine Judge and near to us as the One judged in our place. Jesus Christ is both God and Humanity, the one in whom we discover both an asymmetry and an analogy. Transcendence and immanence find their telos in the person of the Stranger of Galilee. And after all this our fingernail has hardly left an imprint upon the surface of this incredible doctrine…
Many of these gems come from “eastern mines” largely untapped by western surveyors. Augustine we know, and Athanasius we’ve heard of but just, and we barely know of anyone at all past Hippo. Perhaps we should expect a bit more light from the wise men of the east. After all, they have a long history of following the star of our incarnate Lord. If you are looking for a well-traveled tour guide then I heartily recommend our man from Edinburgh.
Links of Interest
Bill’s command of his field was impressive and his singular publishing achievements were many and great. The Eerdmans publishing legacy is filled with enduring projects altogether bearing his stamp. Early in his career came the “revised”—in the end, brand-new—edition of The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), inherited from his father and editorially undertaken by the prodigiously productive Geoffrey Bromiley.
Critics should focus more on describing and understanding than on simply judging—less thumbs up or thumbs down, but instead trying to meet the work on its own terms, seeking to understand its components and aims: communion with a work instead of confrontation.
Systematic theology is enjoying a particularly healthy season at present. And the rise of analytic theology is one of the signs of its health. But if analytic theology is to flourish as a theological discipline, as I hope it will, then perhaps we should view it not as a “species” of systematic theology, but instead as one of systematic theology’s “essential powers”—a power that systematic theology cannot do without, but one that does not, by itself, fulfill the requirements for a fully functioning, healthy body of divinity.
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