Isaiah 9:2-7 / Psalm 96 / Titus 2:11-14 / Luke 2:1-20
By Chaplain Captain Jesse Sykes
Unto us a child is born, to us a son is given.
When I was six or seven I would sometimes test my ability to hold my breath by submerging in a little, plastic above-ground pool. Something about the cold, wet insulated world of water intrigued me; I would open my eyes, calm my heart, conserving the oxygen in my lungs, and prolong this alien sojourn as long as I could. Then come up gasping for air. I didn’t belong in this underwater world. I was meant to breathe air.
Something like this tension is what we feel during the Season of Advent. Try as we might, with all the self-help, escapism, and self-assertions of what Karl Rahner refers to as our “little narrow huts,” we cannot make this world, as it is, our home. And, yet, it is our home. Disjointed, disenchanted. Our home nonetheless. And so, we hold our breath. We wait. For what?
A Review of God-With-US
At the risk of gross oversimplification I think it appropriate to assay a brief survey of a central thread running throughout the biblical narrative. In the Ancient Near East, everyone knew what temples were for—the meeting place of humanity and the divine, the conjoining of heaven and earth. In Genesis we are given the clear impression that this was God’s intention for Creation itself—it would be a Temple for his presence, heaven and earth conjoined, mutually indwelling, God and humanity together in the Garden. At the center of this point of meeting was humanity itself: this is, in fact, what being an Image Bearer means. Not, as some think, that we have specific attributes in common with God (a popular candidate, because it is so self-flattering, is rationality) but because to bear God’s image means, in a twofold sense, to represent this divine presence in good rule over creation and back again toward God in worship. Thus, our twofold vocation as a royal, priestly humanity.
But something happened. We sometimes refer to it as the Fall. Augustine defines sin as curvatus in se, as the soul turning inward on itself; and this makes sense only within the above understanding of humanity’s vocation as an Image Bearer: we are like mirrors, turned inward, reflecting our brokenness in an infinite loop, because we usurped divine prerogative. As Athanasius would teach us, it is only in understanding Creation that we understand the devastation of the Fall and the nature of God’s means to put things back in order. Thus, we see God calling Abraham and promising him a people through whom all the Earth would be blessed (cf. Gen. 12). In the Exodus, when God moves this promise ever closer to fulfillment, he constitutes the nation of Israel, significantly, as a Royal Priesthood—bringing together the twofold royal and priestly vocation (Ex. 19). This is so that they may be holy and God may be in their midst. The implication is clear—what was lost, the conjoining of Heaven and Earth at the Fall, was being reclaimed, the garden reborn; Israel was meant to be the vanguard in God’s reclamation project. Yet, Israel was itself, and as its history moved forward this becomes more and more clear, part of the problem.
Perhaps, if not through Israel as a whole, the trajectory could be corrected through monarchy, through an ideal king. Some in Israel thought this. God’s promise through the prophet Nathan to David all but solidified this hope—God would establish the line of David forever; God’s promise would somehow come to completion. God would be with us. Our passage fits somewhere within this broader, dizzyingly complex narrative matrix, and the Messianic speculation and hope that would later develop in segments of Judaism.
Isaiah 9: Unto us a child is born, to us a son is given.
We do not know when these prophetic words were first spoken, or about whom they spoke. Some say they refer to the birth of Josiah or Hezekiah, nesting them in the events surrounding either Assyrian or Babylonian conquest. Part of the challenge in placing the text in its original setting, is rooted, I think in the brilliance of Israelite theological and prophetic utterance. What mattered wasn’t the specifics of this or that event by itself, but what it would mean in light of the divine, unfolding narrative—the way in which the creator and covenant God of Israel was moving history forward. This meant that every moment was significant, first, in its connection to what would ultimately come, and second, in the urgent sense in which this moment could be the Moment that would reveal (the basic meaning of Apocalypse) God’s salvation. Thus the two viewpoints, the immediate, contingent, worryingly ambiguous present and God’s transcendent, salvation future, were held tensively (to borrow Norman Perrin’s term) together.
What we do know is that this child’s birth would usher in an agecharacterized by permanent, universal peace, justice, and righteousness. In other words, God’s rule would rightly be extended in the world through the royal, priestly vocation of a human, a royal and priestly king. God would be with us once again. The function of humanity as an Image Bearer would be fulfilled. What God intended for humanity and Creation, which was lost in the Fall, and which was meant to be reclaimed through Israel but seemed in jeopardy of failing, would, it seems, happen through this child, or a child like this child. We also know that this event did not happen, as was hoped, during the reigns of Josiah or Hezekiah, nor did it happen centuries later. Israel was exiled. The return was a disappointment; Israel was a small bedraggled remnant, disappointed and growing in complacency. God, the prophet Ezekiel laments, has left his Temple. The Old Testament Canon, however, closes on a note of hope—God, Malachi promises, would return one day to his temple. God would be with us. But how?
Advent: Underwater Breathing
Holding our breath could seem an exercise in futility, or wishful thinking. Apart from Christ, the world simply does not know what to do with the dim awareness that things are not as they should be. We can employ the coping strategy of hedonism, drowning our awareness in surfeit, or the nihilism of apocalypticimagination, celebrating the end-of-life, or, finally, the escapism of Gnostic dualism, denying the goodness of God’s creation to leave it far behind. As Christians we might feel, proudly in our theological hindsight, that we have seen what many prophets hoped to see, the Advent of the God-with-Us, the Word of God who tabernacled with us (John 1:14); and, therefore, we know something about how things will play out. We might bear an implicit sense of superiority knowing we are members of a Royal Priesthood. We are the restored, Image Bearing Humanity. This is true. But today I feel this only means the great whale of God’s mystery has swallowed us all the more. God’s reign in Jesus had two dramatic parts—God forsakenness on the Cross and New Creation at the Resurrection. And neither of those events, if you know anything about Second Temple Judaism or Greek philosophy made any sense. The reign of God through his Messiah was never meant to be ushered in by ignoble, shameful crucifixion. And resurrection was an End Time event meant to happen to all God’s people at once—not a singular event happening to one person, while all the world rolled onwardblithely unaware. What is the hidden link between this world-negating death on the Cross and our lives? What is the continuity between Jesus’ resurrection and our present? Some mystery is here—something that would lead to Paul’s radical understanding of Union with Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ,” and “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection” somehow fit together. May I suggest that it is this creative and destructive tension that lies at the heart of our lives, not only in this liturgical season that commemorates the Lord’s Parousia? The moment when our little, insular, curved-inward lives becomes suddenly, irrevocably part of New Creation, when God’s future irrupts into our present—this is Advent time. We are Advent people.
Closing Meditation and Prayer by Karl Rahner from Encounters with Silence
You will come again, and this is true. But the word again is misleading. It won’t really be “another” coming, because You have never really gone away. In the human existence which You made Your own for all eternity, You never left us. But still You will come again, because the fact that You have already come must continue to be revealed ever more clearly. It will become progressively more manifest to the world that the heart of all things is already transformed, because You have taken them all to Your Heart. You must continue to come more and more. What has already taken place in the roots of all reality must be made more and more apparent. The false appearance of our world, the shabby pretense that it has not been liberated from finiteness through Your assuming finiteness into Your own life, must be more and more thoroughly rooted out and destroyed. Behold, You come. And Your coming is neither past nor future, but the present, which has only to reach its fulfillment. Now it is still the one single hour of Your Advent, at the end of which we too shall have found out that You have really come. O God who is to come, grant me the grace to live now, in the hour of Your Advent, in such a way that I may merit to live in You forever, in the blissful hour of your Eternity.