“ ‘Come thou now thyself,
Sovran of Heaven! bring us salvation,
weary thralls oppressed, worn out with weeping,
with bitter burning tears. With thee alone
resteth their cure for those in direst need.
Visit us here, captives so sad of mood,
nor leave behind thee, when thou turn’st from hence,
so great a throng! But royally show forth
thy mercy to us, O Saviour Christ!
– Cynewulf’s Christ (eighth century)
In the corner of the South where I live, Jesus is contextualized everywhere. The institution at which I teach is intentionally evangelical in a manner true to its Bible Belt roots. It is a warm, welcoming place that adheres to cultural mores as well as Gospel themes. On my campus two sculptures stand in prominent view: one of Jesus washing a man’s feet, another of Him praying at Gethsemane. Juxtaposed against these statues twice a week are students filing toward chapel, where attendance monitors take roll so students can receive grades based upon their attendance. Monitors also make sure that students stay awake and off of smart phones during chapel services. Throughout each semester, other behavioral codes are strictly enforced in dormitories.
Off campus I see other mixtures of welcome and warning: on my commute I pass a church building with a sign out front displaying announcements or encouraging words while the dumpster in its rear parking lot informs passers-by: “CHURCH USE ONLY/GOD IS WATCHING YOU.” Amid an atmosphere in which Christ seems so constantly present in so many contexts, Advent may seem superfluous as well as confusing. Is Christ our Savior? Our suffering servant? Our monitor/security guard? Some combination of the above?
When I taught Western Civilization surveys during my first semester on my campus, I noticed that we humans have always lapsed into the same tired strategies for dealing with our mortality. Before Christ came, ancients tried to appease a variety of deities, saw themselves as valiant sufferers under the caprices of the gods, lived in denial or tried any other means of self-justification upon which they stumbled. Meanwhile, a very small minority of people held on to a promise that Someone was coming to their rescue.
After Christ came in the flesh, provided Himself as our atonement, rose from the dead, promised His return and ascended to Heaven, most people continued to travel down the same worn paths as before. As Christianity gained influence throughout the world, professing Christians often reacted to the Good News, sadly, by stamping Christ’s name on the same attempts of self-justification to which virtually everyone had resorted before – and allowing themselves to be overwhelmed by the weight of their own efforts as well as the burden of sin they carried. Christ was perceived, but rarely trusted. And so it continues with all of us. Christ may seem to be part of our very landscape and still be ignored or misunderstood.
Meanwhile, the precarious nature of life remains inescapable. The gravity of prayer requests we receive at my school or church on any given week can be downright overwhelming. Beyond articulated struggles, who knows the torment that wracks silent sufferers in our immediate vicinity? Advent matters in part because we are still mortal, still worn out with weeping and sad of mood. It matters because we still behave as if Jesus had never come. Advent gives us the opportunity to relive the anticipation of those who awaited the Messiah while reminding us that we can experience the peace that people like Simeon experienced upon His arrival. Advent also helps us look ahead as we await Christ’s return with anticipation. Our past as well as our future rests in Him.
Advent is a reminder of the Gospel, and we need reminders constantly in order to pull us out of the ruts toward which we inevitably veer instead of simply trusting Christ. As I grow older I increasingly realize that during Advent I do not simply celebrate a historical event after the fact. I celebrate the ongoing wonder of Immanuel, God with us. In my culture as well as anywhere, we can celebrate God with us despite ourselves. Christ’s mercies are ever new.
- In your context, how are you most likely to think about Christ’s Advent?
- What are the places in your life where you see the ongoing wonder of God with us?
- Where do you find Christ’s mercies to be ever new?
Lord Jesus, we come to You as needful of the Gospel as were those who preceded Your Advent. Please bless us with Yourself, reminding us that You are larger, holier and more loving than we can know. Help us to trust You alone in whatever contexts and circumstances we find ourselves this season.
Israel Gollancz, ed. Cynewulf’s Christ: An Eighth Century English Epic (London: David Nutt, 1892), p.15. PDF accessed on http://www.archive.org.
Image courtesy of falco at Pixabay.