Advent: Reflections on its Meanings

Do you “get ready for Christmas” or “observe Advent”—or both? …Or neither?

Can you truly do the first without the second?

If you do neither, is it because the whole seasonal fuss has burned you out?

Let’s get to the heart of the matter—or at least of the definitions of “Advent.” Maybe something in number one will surprise you, or give you pause to reflect:

Ad vent 1 : the period beginning four Sundays before Christmas and observed by some Christians as a season of prayer and fasting 2a : the coming of Christ at the Incarnation b: SECOND COMING 3 not cap :  a coming into being or use…*

Do you customarily fast during December? Or personally know anyone who does? I’m sure there must be some people, but I can’t think of anyone I know…

Instead, hasn’t this become a time of too much? Eating, spending, rushing about to meet deadlines, we also overload the calendar with festivities. And all that brings us crashing to an exhausted end by January first.

A ground swell of rebellion against this is rolling around amongst us, but its aim is more to simplify and minimize for its own sake than to appreciate the depth of beauty the season might have.

I have found that getting a better understanding of Advent has corrected my focus, eased my overload, and yet enriched my December greatly. I’m still growing in this, for my Christmas traditions did not include Advent until recent years.

In the coming weeks I hope to share a little of that understanding and appreciation with you, starting right now with nuggets of insight hiding in the definitions above:

“Advent,” in all cases, indicates “a coming” of someone or something. Hence, an anticipation, looking forward to it.

Observe the second set of definitions above. Both focus on Christ, but in two different times: 1) His past coming into our world incarnated in humanity, and 2) His future return, when unfulfilled prophesies are finally realized.

In both cases the “Advent view” essentially looks forward.

On the one hand it puts us in the sandals of the ancients, to vicariously look forward with the longing hope of the ages through the eyes of prophets, psalmists, and ordinary people who foresaw a Redeemer’s visit to redeem this wretched world from its lostness, confusion, and misery.

We look forward with Isaiah, for instance, who announces, “For unto us a child is born, a son is given…” centuries before it happens, or with angels who proclaim His coming birth. We may even time travel way back to the outskirts of the Garden of Eden, to long with Adam and Eve, who lost paradise and could only cling to the promise that somehow, sometime, “the seed of the woman” would be born who would “bruise the head” of the deceiver who had manipulated them into casting that paradise away.

This makes sense of the fasting that “some Christians” (in the definition) might do: Fasting associates itself with mourning, with longing and fervent praying for relief from evil and harm and loss and emptiness and need.

So, with all who mourned and longed for these things, we look forward to His arrival as “the child.”

Yet The Baby arrived, and grew. And the Man he became healed and blessed, taught, and brought people out of darkness. And then He died, sacrificing Himself for the redeeming of our souls. But after that He went away, and the story hangs unfinished.

The rest of the story is the other side of Advent: the longing look for His promised return, to right all wrongs, to heal all ills, to establish the Kingdom of God where all things are new, and good.

In our filling of December, long before Christmas Day, with all things glittery and distracting, it’s easy to obscure the shining hope of our future. And oh, do we need that hope!

So let’s look backward, to celebrate the fulfillment of His first coming, but also forward, to the fulfillment of His second coming, when the celebration will far exceed anything we can invent to contrive a “jolly holiday” now.

A blessed Advent to you, dear reader.

Does it Surprise You?

It jolts me, that little number amid the dock at the bottom of my screen.

It stands out stark to my view and seems to shout “Surprise!”—though I shouldn’t be jolted at all. This year I have been better aware of December First’s approach, perhaps than in any previous year. But that “1” still takes me by surprise.

I’ve thought out most of my gifting. I’ve settled the Advent wreath on a new-sewn runner on my little dining table. And I’ve had some new Advent reading all picked out way ahead of time.

But…

I’m also still “doing” Thanksgiving: eating the leftovers, counting my blessings, being “on staycation,” housebound from church since the weather forecast heralded too much slippery stuff. And though I had a lot of decorating ideas in my head, I don’t have the materials at hand to execute them.

Execute. Now there’s a funny word to have chosen. In today’s English usage it usually implies punishment, putting to death, more than positive production, doesn’t it? And I meant to connote “carry out, follow through on.” But isn’t there a battle mentality about our Christmas doings nowdays: all the items we need to slash off our lists, in all our revved up self-propulsion? Rather than yielding to the purpose for His coming–“to guide our feet in(to) the path of peace”–aren’t we instead jeopardizing our peace?

However, I’m purposing to connect more with that peace this Christmastide/Advent. So away with the surprise, the clamor and the fuss. I hope to be more available to the Author of the event this season’s supposed to celebrate–and to share my peace-path walking here on the blog.

Some things can’t be helped. Last year I spent my December flitting among three places up and down the state, and spending two of its weeks nursing back to health husband’s broken leg and damaged foot (acquired by cutting down trees alone without telling anyone and having one of them “fall wrong”—on him!) I also battled my own raging case of hives, which I’d never experienced before, accompanied by scary angioedema so bad it was moving into anaphylaxis. Now the plagued hives return at intervals, but now also I carry an epipen.

So, I don’t have control of all events.  But I can have an aim. And my aim this December is Peace in Christ.

Peace to you also.

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The  Power of a Cross-Reference

Has anything ever opened up your understanding in a flash by showing you a comparison of something new with something familiar?

By a cross-reference (in this post’s title), I don’t mean “a reference to The Cross,” at least not as its definition—although here it well may be that in another sense. When I say “cross-reference,” I mean a little notation at the bottom of a page, and the place elsewhere in scripture to which it leads, for further information.

When I began my journey of investigating Christ, just such a little set of letters, numbers, and punctuation became a great agent of change in my sense of Who and What He was—and is.

The scripture I was reading: John 1. The verse: last one in the chapter. The situation: Nathanael is also coming to investigate Jesus. His friend Philip has told him he and some others have found the long-awaited Messiah. Nathanael, like I, was skeptical.

Philip has said their found Messiah is Jesus of Nazareth. Nathanael’s incredulous (and perhaps snarky) response was, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Yet he goes with Philip to see for himself.

As he approaches this ordinary-looking person, the man turns toward him and says, “Behold an Israelite in whom there is no guile/deceit.” (Does a little snarkiness tinge this statement, too? Representatives of the Pharisees had just been to visit Jesus…)

To this bold assessment, Nathanael, perhaps still skeptical but with curiosity rising, can’t help asking, “How do you know me?”

To which the man answers, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”

There’s a lot of knowledge packed into Jesus’ two sentences, and evidently they’re enough to knock Nathanael right off his disbelief. I think I hear him gasping as he blurts out, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (A lot packed into his two statements, too!)

It really didn’t take a lot for Nathanael to believe after all, did it? But this man before Him makes the bits of evidence He’s already given Nathanael seem small change. He says, “Do you believe because I said I saw you under the fig tree?”

Then comes the statement that got me seeking my first scripture cross-reference, because to me it was a most cryptic gathering of words:

“Most assuredly I say to you, you shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

What? What on earth (or in heaven) could He have meant?

Did you wonder that when you first read John 1? (or maybe you knew because somebody told you ahead of time?) Did Nathanael wonder?

He would likely have known, at least, that Jesus was referring to a pivotal event in early Israelite history. He, as about every Israelite of his time, was probably clinging fiercely to their history, for this was a time of great political tribulation, of suffering under and longing to break free from an oppressive foreign power. At such a time, your own nation’s history becomes more than dull textbook facts. I’m quite sure Jesus’ words would have brought to Nathanael’s mind their ancient history, and he’d know what He was referencing.

But it wasn’t my history, and I didn’t know. So, to the cross-reference: Genesis 28:12.

What questions and thoughts go through your mind as you look up that reference and read? What claim do you think Jesus was making here?

Intriguing, compelling, it was for me. And though I couldn’t be sure exactly what He meant, I felt the force of its importance. And I thought I got His drift.

That’s when I got hooked on cross-references. What important and  sometimes fascinating background information that led me to!  After while I found my mind automatically cross-referencing from what I was reading to things they reminded me of reading elsewhere. They’re really a lively understanding aid. If you don’t use them, I invite you to start.

And The Gospel of John is a great place to do it.

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{Note: Different Bibles and versions of Bibles often have different cross-references. If you become (or are already) quite familiar with much of the Bible, some will come to your own mind that aren’t noted down in your footnotes. I’ve added some of my own to my Bible’s footnotes. You could, too.}

Who Was This Person? (Read this like an agnostic)

He went by many aliases. He made incredible claims. His identity was wrapped in mystery. Who was this strange man?

[Before proceeding further, I highly reccomend reading the previous post, especially for an explanation of the title’s paranthesis.]

Photo by Robert Nyman, courtesy Unsplash

He was called Logos, The Word.

He was called Phos, The Light.

He was called Hodos and Alethia and Zoe: the Way, the Truth, and the Life. According to historical records, he even called himself by these titles!

In one short chapter opening a book called The Gospel According to John, the fantastical claims burst forth that this strange person called Logos also was God Himself, that He existed at the very beginning of time and was actively involved in the creation of everything anywhere that ever was made.

Here other aliases also emerge: “Jesus,” and “the Christ,” who the book says was “full of grace and truth.” In him, it also says, was “Life” which it calls “the light of men.”

Claiming that he “was in the beginning,” it assumes there was a beginning, a starting point for all we recognize as physical reality, and that even at its start, this person was present. Yet, later on it claims that he also walked the earth as a flesh-and-blood mortal, born of woman, one of those creations He created. Fantastic! Unbelievable! Impossible! Or is it?

How did all this that we know as our world come to be anyway? Did it just happen, all these inanimate things like rocks and water and oxygen? Did they somehow make themselves? Was it all just an accident? Now we’re getting even more fantastical!

And why is the world such a mess? All around us we see destruction and destructiveness. In a world that is supposed by some to be self-creating and evolving, isn’t such destructiveness the utter opposite? Can destruction create? Doesn’t destruction instead destroy?

How the names of this enigmatic person contrast with destruction! Jesus means Savior, one who rescues, delivers, saves. Christ means Messiah, the Anointed one: anointed by God, by the Holy Spirit, for specific holy purpose—whose prophets of old had foretold repeatedly and believers in the Creator God had awaited through long millennia. The Light, the Truth, the Way, and the Way to Eternal Life: energetic words filled with vitality, with creative and redemptive power!

Think about some of the names:

Word is the basic unit for all communication we know: even signs and signals stand for words, which stand for ideas. (And ideas, abstractions: where did they come from?)

Light is what enables us to see. Without it our sight can discern nothing: no color, no form, no images at all.

And Life: what is life but that which enables us to move and emote and sense, to grow and learn and accomplish endeavors and even think them up?

Finally, what is a Way but a path, a direction, a plan to follow? (“This is the way. Walk ye in it.” said the Bible’s Old Testament, and this New Testament person named Jesus claimed to be not just a way, but The Way.)

This mysterious man, god, godman Jesus, Christ, the Light, the Life, the Way, the Truth, the Word, claims to be it all! Do we do well to brush aside such claims? What if the claims are valid?

If so, we are part of His creation. And John 1 says this about His creation’s recognition of Him: “He was in the world, and the world knew Him not. He came to His own, but His own received Him not…” “And this is the verdict: the Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness better than light…”

Is there any possibility that we love darkness better than light? Is there any truth about ourselves, our lives, that we don’t want spread out in full light of day on display before anyone and everyone? Is there any painful truth we don’t even want to see in ourselves? Is it good and wise to love darkness better than light, to grope through darkness all one’s life and then end that life in “outer darkness,” where the Bible says are continual “weeping and gnashing of teeth”?

These are all questions worth pondering. And this little book written by a man named John—who claimed to be an eye witness who saw the living proof of all the fantastical names of Jesus, and who declared elsewhere that he was truly reporting “that which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have touched …and which we have heard”—this little book is worth reading and considering.

May it open your eyes to a burst of light and life and understanding like you’ve never before experienced!

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What the Gospel of John Did for Me

 

(This post is an explanation for the next post, especially its title, and a guide on how best to read it.)

I came to Christ as an agnostic.
An agnostic is not an atheist:

ag nos tic 1 : a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown, and prob. unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god 2 : a person unwilling to commit to an opinion about something.

a the ist one who believes there is no deity

a the ism a : a disbelief in the existence of deity b : the doctrine that there is no deity*

I had been taught not to be gullible. This translated into my life as rather pervasive skepticism.

Yet I loved the possibility of truth, and longed for it. I think I might even have prayed for it, to the God who might be there…?

My pivotal “salvation prayer” was hardly the usual one. Instead it cried out, “I believe, help Thou my unbelief!”

Long story, but God did answer. Yet not in the way you (or I) might have expected, or wanted. Not by performing some miracle for me, like a stage magician—but by letting my life’s rug get pulled out from under me, and then, when I lay sprawled, utterly helpless to get myself to my feet again, by answering my desperate prayers in phenomenal ways that I think many people would label miraculous.

John’s Gospel in itself didn’t save me. But it made new truth resonate in my soul, a “new song,” and ignited the fire of scripture love in my heart. And I think, strange as this might sound, my agnosticism helped feed and intensify this fire. For my agnosticism wasn’t a surly, unbending one but a hungering, seeking one, born in part from my awe at the mystery of things—things like the very existence of life.

In that spirit I read “John”—the Bible segment someone recommended as a good place for a “new believer” to start—in the spirit of a little child who doesn’t know, and doesn’t know if she can know, but really hungers to find out.

That’s the spirit we should all try to have, and keep, as we read “The Word.” And John is an excellent book on which to practice this attitude. It’s simple, yet deep. It’s vocabulary is limited, which is part of its strength. If you pay attention to the words that repeat often it can open your eyes and heart wide. And, even for seasoned Christians, it is the kind of book that can reduce you to the inquisitiveness of the little child, because it holds so much mystery.

Much is simple, but much is not all that clear. Like Jesus’ cryptic parables, it leaves room for lots of questions, for wondering. And if you “accepted Christ” as a little child, you may have been taken on a short-cut away from all those impossible-to-answer questions children can come up with in astonishing, overwhelming number. But those kinds of questions are born of realizing how little we know, and that humility makes us available to the awe that God evokes when He opens up meanings in ways we never saw all those years.

That’s what the essay in the next post aims to stir up in whoever reads it. And that’s why I say in the next post, “Read it like a little child,” and in the parenthesis after its title, “Read it like an agnostic,” like one who doesn’t know, and knows they don’t know, and needs Someone to show them…

As for how otherwise to read the next post, and the scripture it addresses, I recommend 1) in stillness, 2) alone with God, 3) slowly and meditatively, 4) after asking God to “open my eyes that I may see, glimpses of truth you have for me…” and everything else this hymn asks for!

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*Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.

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