The Christian claim that the omnipotent creator of the universe suffered himself to be born into our fallen, broken human flesh as a helpless baby in the humiliating environs of a cattle stall is quite ridiculous when you think about it. About as ridiculous as that same God suffering himself to be executed on a shameful Roman cross for the salvation of a humanity that would not receive him.
But what is Advent and why should I as a Christian be concerned with observing Advent?
This question goes a bit deeper into questions of observing the church year in general. Should Christians be concerned with observing special dates and festivals during the cycle of the year?
I would argue, yes. There are many reasons in favor of observing the church year, but let’s consider just one of those briefly. Just reflect for a moment on our civil calendar. Every year we have a cycle that affects our lives, our decisions, when we travel, when we shop, what we eat, and more – based on the civil calendar of the United States of America. This calendar is designed to make us good citizens and remind us of the major milestones of our national history. It shapes and forms our hearts and minds. The US civil calendar disciples us. It makes us into good little American disciples.
Now, there is some value in this, and I’m not against having a civil calendar, but we are being completely naive if we think that this worldly calendar doesn’t need to have the necessary counterbalance that the church calendar provides us. The civil calendar teaches us to honor and remember, but it also breeds in us a nationalistic zeal that makes us myopic with regard to the world around us. We have to understand that if we shun the church calendar, the only calendar we will have is the civil calendar, and it will be the only annual rhythmic influence on our lives and on our children’s lives. That’s very significant to consider.
Seen in this way, the church year provides a balance to the messages we receive from the calendars that this world provides. In the church calendar, each year we are taught to hope for justice and long for the coming of a Savior (Advent), to celebrate that Savior’s incarnation as God in our own flesh (Christmas), to bask in the glow of the light that the Son of God shines in our dark world (Epiphany), to mourn our own contributions to this world’s brokenness and darkness and the fact that the Son of God had to die to fix it (Lent), to rejoice in the great victory that Jesus Christ won on the cross and the vindication of Him by His Father when He raised Him from the dead (Easter), to celebrate that this man Jesus is now glorified and ascended to heaven and now rules all the entire universe (Ascension), to ponder anew the great power and dignity that he has bestowed on us by sending His Holy Spirit to fill us and empower us (Pentecost), and to take up the mantle as the Church Militant to extend the glorious reign of Christ to all the reaches of the Earth (Trinity Season). Each year this pattern forms Christians and shapes them into Christian disciples.
We need this counter-formation. We as Christians cannot keep our heads in the sand and pretend that we don’t need a Christian calendar to provide balance to the worldly calendars all around us. If we do not offer a counter-formation to the liturgies of the world, then we as the church will be producing disciples that are no different from those in the world around us. We will be self-centered, greedy, entertainment hungry, individualistic, sex crazed, bloodthirsty robots. And isn’t this who we are already? Aren’t these the kinds of disciples our churches are already churning out? Is this what we want to be like? What we want our children to be like?
Now, I’m not advocating that we should remove ourselves from the world, far from it! We as Christians need to be engaged in the world and in the culture so that we can have a voice to its direction and so that we can relate to our friends and neighbors as we share Christ’s love with them. And neither am I claiming that celebrating the church year is some kind of panacea that will cure all our ills and make us all perfect little Christian disciples. Yet, we must see that the calendar of this world is affecting us, and that we desperately need a counterbalance and counter-formation to the formation that the world provides. The church year is not religious formalism. It is not dead religiosity. No, when conceived of properly and with the proper pastoral leadership, observation of the church year can provide an antidote to the poisons that this world delivers to us and which we greedily lap up every single day.
You see, the church calendar provides a disposition. It provides an outlook, a worldview. It gives us something to carry us over from Sunday to Sunday and even to look ahead to weeks and months in the future. It gives us good gospel themes to consider and good godly disciplines to practice. The church calendar makes us wait, watch, pray, and long before we dive headlong into the celebrations of the great feasts of Christmas and Easter. We must long for the coming of Christ and have instilled in us a deep frustration and desire that he would come before we revel in the joys of Christmas morning. It makes us consider the deep hurts and brokenness of this world and long for their restitution before we celebrate the victory that will lead to their banishment.
And this, in short, is the reason for Advent. Celebrating Christmas without advent is what theologians call having an over-realized eschatology: celebrating the victory of Jesus Christ (which is very true and real) without also mourning the fact that in many ways it is not yet reached its consummation. Celebrating Christmas without Advent is like skipping your vegetables and jumping straight for the luxurious chocolate cake or the sumptuous apple pie à la mode. Dessert is wonderful, and something that should be a part of our lives, but if we skip the vegetables and go right to the dessert we will be fat and malnourished.
That’s where we are as American Christians. We are fat and malnourished. We need to eat our vegetables. We need the expectation and patient longing of Advent before we dive headlong into Christmas.
This Sunday at Christ Our King we will be confessing the Athanasian Creed. It is a very long creed, and because of its length the modern church does not confess it much any more. Yet it seems like a good practice to confess this creed at least once a year, on Trinity Sunday. The reason is that the Athanasian Creed is a more detailed, robust, and instructive statement of both the deity and humanity of Christ and the mystery of the Trinity than the Nicene Creed is. It will be good to stretch our theological muscles in this way.
The Athanasian Creed is named for St. Athanasius, a 4th century theologian and churchman who dillgently defended the orthodox faith concerning the Trinity and the deity of Christ against the rising tide of Arianism. At times it seemed to Athanasius as if he was completely alone in defending the truth. Because of this the slogan, Athanasius contra mundum (Athanasius against the world) became to be associated with him.
Athanasius is also important because his Easter Letter of 367 is the first written witness to the entire New Testament Canon.
But Athanasius did not write the Athanasian Creed.
It was attributed to him and was thought to have been written by him up unto the time of the Reformation. Yet we still refer to the creed as Athanasian because it expresses the ideas that the bishop fought for during his life. The author of this creed is still unknown. It is a Western Creed that has been confessed in the churches going back until at least the sixth century.
We will confess it this Sunday, on the Day of the Holy Trinity, because it contains a robust confession of the doctrine of the Trinity as we profess it in catholic churches. The creed is also very instructive, as it lays out many of the nuances of Trinitarian doctrine. Though it is a very long creed, it will be helpful to at least once a year stretch ourselves to profess the doctrine of the Trinity in this way.
The Athanasian Creed
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith unless any person keeps whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither combining the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Spirit unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Spirit Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Spirit Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by Christian truth; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.
Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Essence of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Essence of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood by God. One altogether; not by confusion of Essence; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sits on the right hand of the God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.
Today the Church celebrates the life and sanctity of the Venerable Bede.
Bede (673 – 735) was the last of the early church fathers and the first to compile the history of the English church. Born in Northumbria, Bede was given by his parents to a monastery in Northern England at the age of seven. The most learned man of his time, he was a prolific writer of history, whose careful use of sources provided a model for historians in the Middle Ages. Known best for his book, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he was also a profound interpreter of Scripture; his commentaries are still fresh today. His most famous disciple, Cuthbert, reported that Bede was working on a translation of John’s Gospel into English when death came, and that he died with the words of the Gloria Patri on his lips. He received the title “Venerable” within two generations of his death and is buried in Durham Cathedral as one of England’s greatest saints. (Source: http://www.LCMS.org Commemorations Biographies)
Bede also contributed to our hymnody. The text of the hymn A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing was written by him. http://www.opc.org/hymn.html?hymn_id=3
A Prayer for the Venerable Bede
We thank you, O God, for our brother Bede the Venerable, and for his work among the English people and for his great influence upon the Western church. We thank you for his exposition and translation of scripture, for his support of missionary endeavor, and for his building up of the church in the British Isles and his influence on the same on the continent of Europe. We realize that we owe our culture and civilization to your work through men and women like Bede. We pray that you would raise up many more Bedes in our time and in the ages to come. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.
What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.
Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.
The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.
‘I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.
‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.
‘For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.
‘Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.
‘See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.
`I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.
‘But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.
“The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.
The National Anthem of the United States of America is “The Star Spangled Banner.” Yet while this song about the perseverance of a piece of cloth (for we have no human to revere in our great land) still tugs on our patriotic heartstrings from time to time, perhaps the real anthem of the modern America is a rock song by Queen:
I want it all. I want it all. I want it all. And I want it now.
This anthem is what drives the American spirit. Just walk into any Sam’s Club or Wal-Mart where you can literally have it all, and have it now, if you only have access to enough credit.
I want it all. I want it all. I want it all. And I want it now.
How did we get here? We are a country that was built on the backs of hard work and perseverance. How did we become so lazy, impatient, and averse to suffering? How did we get to the point that we truly believe that everything is our due, and we owe absolutely nothing for it?
I want it all. I want it all. I want it all. And I want it now.
No, this is more than our anthem. This is our litany, our national prayer, our creed. We name it, and we claim it. We shouldn’t have to wait, we shouldn’t have to save or do without, and we shouldn’t have to pay for it.
I want it all. I want it all. I want it all. And I want it now.
There could be nothing farther from the ethos of the scripture than this litany of consumerism, this patriotic anthem of acquisition, this creed of impatience, pride, and gluttony. The bible says, wait, be patient, and suffer. That’s actually what the bible says! Wait, be patient, and suffer. What could be farther from our cultural norm? Yet we see in Mark 8:31-38 that though Christ was God incarnate, omnipotent and omniscient, and he certainly could have taken the rule of the entire earth, for he certainly had the power,yet he didn’t! He waited, he was patient, and he suffered.
And yet even after he waited, faithfully passed the tests, was patient, and suffered for his bride, he still does not have the fullness of worldly power. Why? Why did he not at least then, after he waited so long and suffered so much, did he not then take what was due him? Why? Because he also wanted glory for his people, his bride, and the only way to real glory is to wait, to be patient, and to suffer. So we must wait, be patient, and suffer, though we are anointed priests, kings, and prophets to the world, we must wait, be patient and suffer for the life of the world just as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ did.
We must wait, be patient, and suffer.