Reflections on Advent

Advent, this season leading up to Christmas, is my favorite celebration of all. Far too often we are too busy to recognize the significance of advent, or respect what it represents.

There are lots of arguments about whether or not people should celebrate Christmas. Many people, especially the extreme arm of Christ-mythers, go so far as to say that Christmas was simply a Catholic rip off of the winter celebration of the Zoroastrian god (”yazata”) Mithra. They point to the celebration that happened right after the Winter Solstice, and how it was a celebration of the birth of Mithra, seen as the birth of light in a dark world. Indeed, some go so far as to say that the historical account of Jesus in the Gospels is not only a myth, but a direct copy of Mithra from years earlier, as Mithra is also said to have been raised from the dead. (this is the general argument laid out by “The Christ Conspiracy”)

I bring Mithraism up because I am interested in fleshing out my thoughts on advent. I believe that advent is utterly unique to Christ and to Christianity, and it’s what makes Christianity compelling. I bring up Mithraism for full disclosure because not everyone agrees with me. (though, the common belief among scholars has turned in the other direction. Many believe that the Romans added the advent and resurrection parts to Mithraism after seeing it in Christianity, not the other way around. Some discussion here and here.)

So, yes, in spite of Mithraism, and in some ways, because of Mithraism, I believe that advent is an utterly unique and beautiful part of the story God is telling through us and through Christ.

Advent comes from the Latin word for coming. This is the time leading up to the commemoration of the birth of Christ and the incarnation. This is the time when we celebrate Emmanuel–”God with us.” (Matthew 1:23) Jesus, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!”. (Philippians 2)

This is an incredible claim. Just digest that for a moment. God came to earth, made himself nothing and took on human flesh. He humbled himself, and allowed himself to be captured and killed.

Hundreds of years prior, Isaiah predicted exactly this:

2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
      and like a root out of dry ground.
      He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
      nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

3 He was despised and rejected by men,
      a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
      Like one from whom men hide their faces
      he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4 Surely he took up our infirmities
      and carried our sorrows,
      yet we considered him stricken by God,
      smitten by him, and afflicted.

5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
      he was crushed for our iniquities;
      the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
      and by his wounds we are healed.

6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
      each of us has turned to his own way;
      and the LORD has laid on him
      the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
      yet he did not open his mouth;
      he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
      and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
      so he did not open his mouth.

8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
      And who can speak of his descendants?
      For he was cut off from the land of the living;
      for the transgression of my people he was stricken.

9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
      and with the rich in his death,
      though he had done no violence,
      nor was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
      and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering,

      he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
      and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

11 After the suffering of his soul,
      he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
      by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
      and he will bear their iniquities.

12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
      and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
      because he poured out his life unto death,
      and was numbered with the transgressors.
      For he bore the sin of many,
      and made intercession for the transgressors.

Isaiah 53, NIV.

This is what should get us through all times. This is what bears every question and doubt about God. I recently had friends struggle with the death of someone I did not know. He was in great pain due to cancer, and at one point, had doubts about his faith. What would God do?

I know plenty of people with plenty of struggles. And at some point or another, the question arises about the justice, grace and mercy of God. What would God do? Why does He allow it to happen?

First of all, the fundamental point of advent is that God cares. He cares. The Son cared deeply enough to come from heaven to earth, to empty what it means to be of nature God and to become nothing. Not only to become one of us, but to become the lowliest of us. A baby born to an audience of mere shepherds. That the Father cared deeply enough to send His Son to do this. To devise this plan from the very beginning, in one breath cursing man’s first sin and in the second, telling us of His great plan to save us all in the end. (Genesis 3:15) And beyond that, Creator God did this before we even knew what was wrong. Before we knew the trouble we were in, before we were even aware of our need for saving, let alone before we could do anything about the situation we find ourselves in, God was already working. (Romans 5:8)

And why? Because of His great love for us. He loved us so much, He came to earth to be less than nothing, to live among us, to share our struggles and to be acquainted with our suffering and our sorrows.

So I keep returning to those questions. What does God do with eternity? And why does He allow bad things to happen now?

If Jesus did not spare Himself from God’s will, why should we expect better treatment? It’s known as the problem of evil, the question of how a God who is both perfectly good, and perfectly all-powerful could allow bad things to happen, especially to good people. Philosophers and theologians for thousands of years have been looking for a pat answer, and I’m convinced one doesn’t exist. The reasons why vary from case to case. In Jesus’ case, the ultimate good was the advent story. It was a Good God who emptied Himself of everything, who became nothing and died among common thieves, all because He loved us. And that leads into two other answers: One, we can not and should not expect better treatment than what Jesus received. If Jesus, the very Son of God, was crucified as part of God’s will, there may be any number of sufferings awaiting us. Possibly up to and including death on a tree. Secondly, it is by God’s great love for us, and our shared experience of living in human flesh that we can know that God will give us the strength to do anything He calls us to do and that He is personally willing to go there Himself and serve that good purpose He has in mind with us.

But I keep going back to that question about eternity. I believe that fundamentally, lots of people have a really distorted view of God. It’s the only way that there can be so many different religions and so many different and incompatible paths to pleasing God. What I think people fundamentally forget is the advent story. God’s intentions and will are made perfectly clear in the life of Jesus. God isn’t a cosmic bully that wants to see us suffer, nor is He a cosmic genie that wants us to live with our every desire.

Instead, He loves us tremendously enough to give us what we need, when we need it. Describing God as the Father couldn’t be more appropriate. His love for us is unconditional and unending. He knows what is best for us, and will see it through to the end. He is also not far away, but is very much next to us. He knows what it’s like to be one of us.

So when I think about that question about eternity. About any question about God really, I have to go back to advent. I do not believe a good God willing to do all of this could possibly be evil, unfair or unjust. Our sense of goodness and love and justice and mercy and grace can only pale in comparison with God’s. We have these because God does too. When we share our fist at the sky and yell out to God, “That’s not fair!”, He knows already. He agrees with us, our sense of moral decency comes from Him, not from us.

Anytime a tragedy happens. A child dies. Someone without Christ passes onto eternity. Someone suffers through unspeakable pain and suffering. I come back to advent. I remember, God knows. I remember that my sense of fairness and right and wrong are only a mere shadow of God’s.

And I believe that God will do what is right. These doubts and fears evaporate in light of what God has done already and for the hope of what He must have planned next.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” –Romans 8:28-39

(reproduced verbatim from my other blog. Originally posted 12/23/08.)