Advent – the word stands for the “coming.” We say it was God’s Messiah who came in human form, and Advent is the celebration of this coming on the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. But how seriously are we to take this claim?
The purpose of Advent is to renew the faith of believers by helping them to review important events connected with the Messiah’s birth.
The visitation of angels, a baby’s miraculous birth to a previously barren elderly couple, the heavenly announcement to shepherds, the virgin birth of Jesus in a cattle shed – these are compelling accounts. But how do we know they aren’t just myths, legends or folktales?
Most would agree they make wonderful material for skits and programs that can be enacted during the holiday season. But do they report actual happenings at a specific time in history?
The physician, Luke, who recorded these stories is the one to ask. He answers the question in the opening paragraph of the gospel account that carries his name (Lk. 1:1-4).
Luke writes in classical Greek, which fact is not obvious to those of us who read his account in English. And his opening words are the longest sentence in the Scriptures, which also is not evident in our English translations. In this sentence he sets forth carefully his specific intention in putting the Christ story into writing. I’ll break down and paraphrase that one long sentence. I’ll recast it in a series of short sentences. He wrote:
Truly remarkable things have happened. Many have tried to capture the story of these happenings 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. I’ve left 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 — for a special reason. 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 a fairy tale? He says, I have “carefully investigated” what I am about to write; I have been meticulous in my research. 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 avoid inaccuracies in saying what actually happened, and he does so well. He winnows 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. We believe it’s 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 into 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 ravages of sin. 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 whatever their situation; and he will come again to rend the skies and declare his universal lordship over all.
Photo credit: Christopher Bulle (via flickr.com)