Why do we so carefully observe the four Sundays leading up to Christmas? What exactly are we celebrating for a month beforehand? We are joyfully anticipating the coming of the Messiah — Savior, Lord, Son of God.
There’s the story of Mary, the teenage virgin who was to become the birth mother of our Lord. The angel, Gabriel, brought her the news. And there is the account of Zechariah, the aged priest, who, while on priestly duty at the altar of incense in the magnificent temple, was also visited by Gabriel.
Mary was told that, though a virgin, she would bear a son who would be the Savior of the world. The angel’s news to Zechariah was that he and his “older adult” wife, Elizabeth, were to be favored by the miraculous birth of a special son — known to this day as John the Baptist — and this in spite of their advanced years.
These are fascinating accounts, and all would agree that they make wonderful Sunday school material for children 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 primary advent stories and so he is the one to ask: Is this actual fact? He answers the question in the opening paragraph of the gospel account in the New Testament that carries his name (Luke 1:1-4).
Those of us who read his account only in English translation may not know that Luke wrote in the splendid classical Greek of a highly educated man. The beginning of his account is the longest sentence in the whole of Scripture. In that sentence he sets forth carefully what he intends to accomplish in his gospel account.
Permit me to break down and paraphrase that one long sentence into a series of shortened sentences that state his purpose:
Truly remarkable things have happened. Many others 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 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 are now of the things you have already been taught.
Does this sound like Luke intends to support a myth? No, he emphasizes careful investigation, meticulousness, corroboration with eyewitnesses, and comparison with other first-hand accounts, and that from all of this he is creating his personal account. All of this is for the purpose of supporting the truth that his reader (Theophilus) already believes.
Luke is self-consciously attempting to record history. Sacred history. 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).
He wants to report what actually happened, avoiding inaccuracies. He knows his story can’t be authentic without details of the miraculous elements in the account.
And this is the key to the celebration of Advent. Our celebration is rooted in history. It’s about events that really happened. Advent is a holy season because we believe these things happened miraculously. Zechariah and 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 historically-grounded coming of God in human form. 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 is threefold: 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.
Photo credit: Gytha69 (via flickr.com)