Theology for Advent and Christmas






ST 1201                                                                 12 December 96

1. The Second Season Comes First. Historically, of course, the root of the church year is the cycle of events from Holy Week, especially Good Friday and Easter. Every Christian weekly worship was a remembrance of Christ "crucified for our offenses and raised for our justification." (Romans 4:25). The modern liturgical movement has emphasized the centrality of this complex, but--alas!--has tended to treat Christmas as an unfortunate development.

Christmas is secondary. This is also true in the New Testament--all of which is cross and resurrection centered, but only parts of which deal with the birth of Jesus at all. But Christmas is not insignificant. As the Christian community developed the festival year, the Christmas cycle comes first and has its own key role to play both theologically and in the development of personal piety.

2. The (Necessary) Rise of Christmas. Why was Mark's gospel not sufficient? Why did both Matthew and Luke add (quite shockingly different) stories of the birth of Christ? The answer seems to involve more than human curiosity. Jesus in Mark (and to some extent in John) suddenly appears. His humanity is not self-evident. A docetic or gnostic Christology (without the full humanity) could easily develop. The birth stories underscore the human Jesus (despite their miraculous character). They tie Jesus d own to a particular place and time, and even more specifically to a particular people--Israel, those who had received the promises of God.

Christianity needed Christmas to avoid becoming a mystery cult, overly focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus (and our own dying and hopes beyond death). While this is perhaps the deepest human question (What happens when we die?) there is another that the Christmas cycle answer: (What is the meaning of this life?)

But almost as soon as we spot the potential significance of Christmas (this Incarnational thrust) we can also anticipate the great problem. Any claim for God to be with and in and for the world will sooner or later run the risk of tying God to the world too closely, too uncritically. The commercialization of Christmas, the uncritical adoption of pagan ceremonies, the sentimental reworking of the story of the child who shivers in the manger, the confusion of the New World Order with the Kingdom of God- -all of this is already inherent in the risky message that God has entered into human life in Christ.

3. The Two-Edged Word of Judgment. The church developed Advent as a season of preparation for Christmas. Initial attempts to make Advent long (eight weeks) or overly sober (a second Lent) were not successful. The faithful saw the need of preparation, of repentance, but not a second long and somber penitential season. It was--in the Northern Hemisphere, at least--the time of the coming of winter, of cold and darkness and threat of death.

Advent today begins as the old church year ends, with a word of judgment, with news of the end of the world. This obscures a lovely older tradition of beginning Advent with the Palm Sunday gospel--the King who was promised, who came and was betrayed, but who now comes again in glory and power.

The word of judgment is intentionally harsh and jolting but it is also, at the deepest level good news. For it is God who is coming, not only to judge and condemn, but also to rectify, to justify, to end oppression and suffering. Our early Advent preaching should balance the terror and suddenness of the End with the deep hope of God's faithful people that now at last the promises are being fulfilled.

4. The Voice Crying in the Wilderness. At the heart of Advent (usually occupying the Second and Third Sundays) is John the Baptizer. In Mark the portrait is compressed; Matthew, Luke, and John provide additional information to round out the picture . But whatever else John may be, he is a wake-up call to our complacency about life, about the world, about the places that we put our hope and our fears. John calls people to radical attention to God and to God's claim on us with the insistence that God is breaking in, coming near, at hand.

The imagery for this is violent--earthquakes, upheavals, fire of judgment, the ax at the root of the tree. But for John also this radical preaching is Good News (see the almost ironic Luke 3:18 after the harshness of John's exhortations). The mood is hope and expectation, so that even the jaded city dwellers go out to the Jordan, and many--apparently--who went in scorn were caught up in the excitement and offered themselves for baptism.

The hope behind John and one of the greatest Advent texts is Isaiah 40, which Luther is said to have called the greatest chapter of gospel in all of Scripture. Alas, in the current Lectionary, we hear it only in Cycle B. I would read it every year, and preach on it. The words of comfort are familiar from Handel's Messiah, but the story of the return of the exiles, the joy after decades of capacity, the assurance that God's word (of promise) is what endures forever, this is some of the finest "stuff " o f which our faith is formed.

5. Fruits of Repentance. Of course in light of such great news, we cannot go on with business as usual. Lives must be turned around (repent--in the original Greek sense). John gives some suggestions (Luke 3:10-14) but these are only such. Each Christian woman or man must personally ask, "What then should we do?" It is not the preacher's task in Advent to make that question easier, but to sharpen it, lest people live with an illusion that Christianity is a license for doing whatever the world tells you with forgiveness from God arranged in advance. People may say that they do not want to be made uncomfortable, that they would rather sing Christmas carols and be positive, but this is not the testimony of this Word and of this ancient season. Advent i s a time for facing the truth about one's impending death and therefore making better arrangements for daily life, better plans for the end of life, better provision for the praise and the service of the God who is coming in such power and glory.

6. Joy in All Circumstances. If we miss the annual reading of Isaiah 40:1-11 in Advent III, we also now miss the yearly hearing of Philippians 4:4-7 in Advent IV (we do still hear it on Advent III in Cycle C). This great epistle captures the Christian mood for Advent as one that combines waiting and hope with deep joy. The power of that joy, as we know from Paul, is that is not dependent on the circumstances of our lives. It is not a natural emotion but a gift of the spirit (see Galatians 5:22) which comes as God's gift to those who know that the Lord is at hand.

Philippians is a letter apparently written while Paul is in prison. The circumstances of Paul's life are not happy ones, but again he says, "Rejoice." A careful exploration of the passage shows that such God-given joy brings with it not only peace, but also contentment--one of the rarest gifts for people of our own time (press on to Philippians 4:10-13--a remarkably powerful passage). A well-kept advent has time not only for the words of promise, and the fruits of repentance but even to consider--in quiet and stillness these great Christian virtues, especially joy whose special season is Advent and Christmas. The Bible is the original Book of Virtues.

7. Women and Angels (and Even Men). The final Advent Sunday is the bridge to Christmas and has its own role to play. Surely the mood is set by the stories--Mary and Gabriel (Year B), Mary and Elizabeth (Year C), even Joseph and the angel (Year A). Unfortunately we never hear the fine story of the conception of John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-23). All of these stories point both to the wonder of the birth but even more deeply to the coming of this child in the context of God's great promises to Israel. The Jewishness of Jesus is especially evident here, and it is part of the story that our Christian people today especially need to hear.

The best preaching on this material respects the wonder and mystery of what is coming and does not try to moralize or rationalize the account. Yes, these are strange tidings; Mary, Joseph, and Elizabeth all understand that. But the mood of this Sunday is one of faith, faith like Mary who (in contrast to the protesting Zechariah who has to be temporarily silenced) is able to submit to God's will: "Let it be to me according to your word." (Luke 1:38).

Excursus: Christmas Carols During Advent? On the whole the liturgical folks seem right that this is not a very good idea. There are plenty of wonderful Advent hymns which need their own season. People are drowning in Christmas music in stores and at parties. The church does well to hold back. However, there are possible exceptions. A few hymns live in the border between Advent and Christmas. These include "Joy to the World", "Lo, How a Rose is Growing" (especially verses 1-2), perhaps "Cold Dec ember Flies Away." By Advent IV it is high time to switch the focus from John the Baptist to Mary and Joseph and the angel of promise. On this Sunday too one might want to sing something like "The Bells of Christmas"--a wonderful Lutheran heritage hymn that is apt to get lost in the Christmas shuffle. Then again "Of the Father's Love Begotten" would work well from Advent IV to the end of Epiphany. What is not called for is "Silent Night", "O Come all Ye Faithful" ,or "Away in a Manger" one moment before Christmas Eve.

8. Among the Poor and Lowly. When we finally come to the Christmas gospel, it ought to strike us that while the story mentions the great and powerful (Augustus Caesar and the like) it actually takes place among poor people--travelers who cannot fin d lodging, persons caught in terrible government decrees, shepherds who were rough customers. It is a great part of the Christmas story, especially for Luke, that when Christ is born he is found among the poor and the lowly.

This is not so much liberation theology as the theology of the cross, the surprising and hidden way that God has of working in the world, invading our lives where and when we least expect divine presence, comforting even those who are cold, alone, or frightened with the gospel of peace to humankind. It should be the occasion for simple, powerful preaching--but also exploring the depth and the power of the angel's tidings that this birth represents a new relationship of God to all the world.

9. God With Us and For Us. We come to the climax of the story on Christmas Day whether or not we have a service on that morning. The fullness of Christmas comes not simply in Luke 2, but more emphatically in John I which explores the powerful theological implications of Christmas without a single angel, shepherd, or star. Here we learn that the one we have known as Jesus from Nazareth, the one baptized by John, is the true Word of God, the one who was LOGOS from eternity, the secret of creation, Go d become flesh. Every single Christian person ought to be pressed in faith development first from a sense of Christ as teacher or example to Christ as gift (Luther's favorite image) and then beyond that to see and confess the full mystery of how one we have known as Jesus is the light of the world through whom the eternal and transcendent God's great glory has been made known.

You may find these rich themes beyond you, and they are, as they are beyond every pastor and theologian. But don't go even further and insult our members with the suggestion that they are not interested in such things. This is the deep and powerful truth of God to which you can cling in time of trouble and even in the hour of death. "The Word became flesh" is the central Christian message in as powerful a form as the news that "Christ died for our sins", or that "Jesus Christ is risen from the death" .

10. A Host of Witnesses. Surrounding Christmas are additional stories (Luke 2, Matthew 2) and saints days (St. Stephen, December 26; St. John, December 27; Holy Innocents, December 28) which round out the picture in two ways. They remind us that the Christmas story calls not only for faith (Luke 2:19--Mary pondering all these things) but also witness (Luke 2:20--the shepherds returned, praising God). Simeon and Anna are witnesses to those who wait for the Lord and for the slow but dependable keeping of the promises. Stephen, the Holy Innocents, even John remind us how quickly the shadow of cross, suffering, and even death cloud the bright story of the child of promise. These are good additional moments to reinforce the power and the implications of the central message, good additional days to keep singing the great and rich carols and hymns of Christmas (which, in my view, should spill over into the middle of the Epiphany season).

11. The Goal of Every Quest. At the end of Christmas and the beginning of another season come the Magi--those strange pilgrims from the East who search the skies and follow a new star in quest of the birth of a child. They are the precursors of every person who has been caught by the Christmas gospel and now goes in quest of what God has done. Their witness shines on down to us, complete with their detour to Herod, who not only understands nothing but asserts his bloody and terrible authority in hope that God's coming rule can be held back.

The magi are the pilgrims in each of us (Luther called them Professors, a nice touch!) but also the representatives of the nations, the Gentiles who come to the rising of this new Sun. Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, the shepherds--these are all the community of Israel in the midst of whose story Jesus is born. But from the beginning there has been a larger promise in this gospel, already hinted by Isaiah and the other prophets, that God's light would go forth to all and a great journey of faith an d reconciliation would begin. You have to see as a preacher how far you want to spin out that story, which gets its next push at Pentecost, but which is far from complete in a world where only a fraction of the people know the coming of Jesus as good news .

12. Put Christ Back in Christmas?  It's not necessary. Christ has always been there, the source of true meaning, light in our darkness, the one sought by all those serious and not-so-serious worshipers on Christmas eve. When we scold about put ting Christ back in Christmas we betray that we are too concerned about human behavior (Better watch out, better be good, Jesus is coming!) that the good news that shatters human goodness and faithlessness alike: God is coming, God is here, God is love. Let's put ourselves back in Christmas, listening to John, repenting, hearing the angel's message, but avoiding every suggestion that if we keep advent well enough then perhaps God will be pleased to come.


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