Preparing For Advent: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I love the study of Christian doctrine. It is something that has occupied much of my time and effort over the course of more than four decades. Yet, that being said, much of Christian doctrine consists of studies in, for lack of a better phrase, “the abstract”.
For instance, we have varied theories of the atonement – penal substitution, Christus Victor, satisfaction, ransom, moral influence, etc., which, while perhaps informing some aspects of our lives as Christians, tend to remain less than real. We leave their exposition and study to theologians who, occasionally, share with us some practical application.
Advent will soon be upon us (this year the First Sunday of Advent is December 2nd). It is a time of expectation. We await the coming of Christ in the babe of Bethlehem. We await the coming of Christ at the end of the age. We await the coming of Christ into our hearts to direct our steps and actions. The season of Advent will find its culmination in the Feast of the Nativity, Christmas. In many churches, the appointed reading from the Gospels is St. John 1: 1-5, 9-14.
It is interesting that the reading begins with the abstract –
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
Here is a playground for theologians! We can examine the meaning of logos (Word) in the world of classical philosophy. We can look to see how it fits into Neo-Platonic categories among Greeks and Hellenized Jews in Alexandria. Scholars may read through multiple patristic sources to find its meaning in the world of the early Church. Philologists can explore nuances in understanding…
The writer of the Gospel of John, however, does not allow this to remain in the abstract –
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth.
The message is that Christianity is an incarnational faith. We may begin with concepts, some of which may even be difficult to apprehend, but we end fully anchored in real life, in “becoming flesh”, in “dwelling among us”, in “seeing his glory”.
This incarnational approach can be extended to Christ’s coming again at the end of the age. We await the time in which “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”. The writer of the Apocalypse says, however, that this will not be a “secret” or “spiritual” event, but one that takes place in real time, in a real body. “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him…” We may speculate on the symbolism of various things described in the Apocalypse, but the central event is not abstract or speculative. It is real and it is rooted in the Incarnation.
So, what of Christ coming into our hearts? Surely, that is merely a spiritual matter, something abstract, something that cannot be seen.
I think not.
This is not about salvation. It is about the Incarnation and how it informs our lives as Christians. It means that owing to Christ coming into our hearts and lives, something has changed, something is different and that “change”, that “difference”, can be apprehended, that it can be heard and seen in what we say and in what we do. The writer of First John, puts it pretty bluntly –
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.
And if we want to ask, “Who is my brother?” we need only refer to the words of Christ himself in the Sermon on the Mount, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, in his description of “the least of these” his brothers and sisters in the Gospel of Matthew or countless other examples. You see, Christianity is not a faith of spiritual speculation. It is not theoretical. You can get all the doctrine right; you can be expert in exegesis; you can understand perfectly the historical context; indeed, you “can speak (or write) with the tongues of men and of angels”, you can “understand all mysteries and all knowledge” and still miss the point of what it means to be a Christian in the world.
The Incarnation was, and remains, the expression of God’s very nature… love. If we look to express our faith this Advent season, we might turn our attention to the Incarnation and what it really means, both to us and to those who hear our words and who see what we do. It is not simply about an abstract doctrine… it is about our life.