When we observe Advent – the four Sundays leading up to Christmas – what are we celebrating? We know that the word stands for the coming of the Messiah in human form. But what credence are we to give this claim?
There’s the story of Mary, the chosen virgin who was to become the birth mother of our Lord. We think of the angel, Gabriel, who brought her the news. And there is Zechariah, the aged priest, who was also visited by Gabriel while on priestly duty at the altar of incense in the magnificent temple.
The angel’s news to Zechariah was that he and his elderly wife, Elizabeth, were to be favored by the miraculous birth of a special son — later to come to be known to the world as John the Baptist — and this in spite of their advanced years.
These are fascinating accounts, but what kind of stories are they? Myths? Legends? Folk tales? Or maybe just mere fantasies that have worn well through the ages? All would agree that they make wonderful material for little Sunday School skits the children can enact during the Christmas season. But, do they speak of actual happenings at a specific time in history?
It was the physician, Luke, who reported the stories and so he is the one to ask. He answers the question in the opening paragraph of the gospel account in the New Testament that carries his name (Luke 1:1-4).
In splendid classical Greek not obvious to those of us who read his account in the English translations and in the longest sentence of any in the Scriptures (also not evident in English translations) he sets forth carefully what he intended in putting the Christ story into writing. In a series of shortened sentences let me break down and paraphrase that one sentence of his stated purpose. He wrote:
Truly remarkable things have happened. Many have tried to capture the story in writing. They’ve gathered their details about these unusual events from first-hand observers. I have done my own careful investigation of everything from the outset, leaving nothing out. So it seemed like a good idea for me to write my own account of what has happened. I’ve done this for you — most excellent Theophilus — with a special purpose. I want you to be even more certain than you now are of the things you have already been taught.
Does this sound like Luke intends to spin folk tales? Or cunningly fabricated myths? He says, I have “carefully investigated” what I am about to write. I have been meticulous in my search. I’ve checked it against other first-hand accounts. I am convinced of the facts and I reduce this to writing to increase the certainty of my reader, Theophilus, who already is a believer.
Luke is self-consciously attempting to record history. But it’s sacred history. He wants to report what actually happened, avoiding inaccuracies. And he does it well, winnowing out the chaff of speculation from the weighty grains of fact. But, in doing so, his story can’t be authentic without including details of the miraculous elements in the account. He is regarded by most impartial scholars today as, “One of the very best and most reliable historians of antiquity” (New Bible Dictionary p. 756).
That gives us our key to the celebration of Advent. Our celebration is rooted in history. It’s about events that really happened. But Advent is a holy season because we believe these things happened miraculously. The message to Zechariah was solid and he and wife Elizabeth really did receive a child, John, against the impossibilities of nature. And Mary was indeed the virgin mother of the one who became the world’s saviour, Jesus the Christ.
So, in Advent we celebrate the historical coming of God in human flesh. He came as a real person, to be worshiped by his followers as fully human and fully divine. He came into a real world, blessed by resplendent beauty and scarred by the darkest of sins. He came to bring redemption through a perfect life and a sacrificial death.
For those who embrace this truth and declare themselves his followers his coming will now be three-fold: he came in an historical moment; he comes to the hearts of his followers wherever they are; and he will come again to rend the skies and declare his universal lordship over all.