Heretical thoughts on Advent

Next Sunday marks the beginning of Christian season of Advent. One would think that I, as a follower of Jesus, would enjoy enhanced fellowship with other believers in what should be the most joyous of occasions…the celebration of the miraculous birth of a divine persona, arriving here to save us all.

Given my phrasing above, most will wonder why I’d possibly not be able to whole-heartedly celebrate and worship in any given Christian church during this season. After all, don’t all Christians believe that a divine Saviour was born under miraculous circumstances?

My problem is twofold: First, the celebration of the birth of Jesus isn’t enough for most Christians; the beautiful nativity story comprises a mere half of the definition of Advent. Secondly, I have markedly different views regarding the exact nature of the miracle in question, as well as how exactly Jesus “saves” us.

Regardless of whether one believes that Jesus was literally God, effectively God, part of God, a human prophet of God, a really wise spiritual teacher, or merely a respectable guy, one would have just cause and desire to celebrate his birth. We celebrate the birthdays of many people we respect and/or love, and all can join in the celebrations regardless of our individual reasons for respecting or loving that person. Christmas should be a time in which Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists of all denominations or sects, as well as many Jews, pagans, and even some atheists could come together, sharing a common celebration of the (observed) birthday of a person who, if not God himself, can be seen at least as a respected teacher and reformer of errors.

I understand that each of the aforementioned groups would necessarily have different rituals or manners in which such a celebration would be observed; I’m not saying that someone who only believes that Jesus was a respectable teacher or even a prophet would find close fellowship in a Christian church where the service would be based on the divinity of Jesus (or vice-versa). Rather I am saying, as an aside, that there are many people from very diverse backgrounds and conflicting beliefs who can truly share a tiny bit of common ground with the simple wishes of “Merry Christmas! Peace to you and yours”.

As a believer in the divinity of Jesus, one would of course think that I’d find Christian services the most fulfilling. To some extent, this is true, but it is always with a good measure of worry and trepidation that I enter a Christmas church service. Inasmuch as the service is about the joyous celebration of the birth of Jesus, it is like enjoying a fine wine. The ritual, the sight, the smell, and the taste of it are incredibly pleasing and it leaves one with a nice aftertaste and a warm feeling inside.

The problem is that the celebration of the birth of Jesus isn’t sufficient for most Christians. It’s just not good enough to celebrate that miraculous event on its own. The good news that God loved the world so much he sent his son evidently isn’t allowed stand on its own; Advent isn’t just the celebration of Jesus’ birth, it is simultaneously the warning of and preparation for the second coming. The story of Jesus’ nativity evidently has to be mixed with equal parts of the message that he will be coming back one day with a vengeance to eternally condemn anyone who hadn’t heard of his birth or who doesn’t believe in a very narrow (and, IMO, erroneous) definition of what it meant.

If a true Christmas service is like enjoying a fine wine, then the typical Christian service is akin to trying to drink that wine after some drunkard has pissed in the bottle. Can we not get through a simple celebration of the birth of a baby without being jarred out of our contemplations of the good tidings of great joy for all people by the mention of his blood, torturous death, or what will happen at some unspecified point in the future when he comes back? There is a certain mood, a feeling of peacefulness, joy, and love, that needs to exist at the celebration of Jesus’ birth, and that mood is totally derailed when the service is summed up as “Nice baby, but YOU’RE ALL ETERNALLY DOOMED unless you’re WASHED IN HIS BLOOD”.

Don’t lecture me about how important that other part is, either. Even if I agreed, a celebration of someone’s birth isn’t the time or the place to be spending most of your time looking forward to that person’s death. You’ve got the entire rest of the year to get across the certainty of his return and you’ve got an entire separate “season” to “celebrate” his death. Can we not, just once, celebrate a miracle on its own? Is the scene in Bethlehem and the illustration of God’s love not enough for you?

And the angel said to them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:10-14, emphasis mine)

Is it remotely possible that we celebrate and enjoy just that story, which could easily stand on its own, without the need to mention bathing in or drinking his blood or combining it with doctrines related to his death that he never taught? Must we begin disassembling his manger while he’s still in it just so we can build a cross? Ooooh, such a nice baby, thanks for coming, now hurry up and die so we can get our salvation.

The second reason I find myself mostly alone in the celebration of Jesus’ birth, that of differing viewpoints regarding both the nature of the miraculous birth and of “salvation” itself, isn’t quite as critical (at least to me). I have come to accept the feeling of being a lone voice in the wilderness in relation to these things and since I have plenty of practice mentally translating them as I listen to the pastor during the service, they’re not as distracting or jarring to me as is the mention of his blood or death. Find me a church where I’m guaranteed not to hear the phrase “blood of Christ” or some reference to the ransom theory that he “died for our sins” during a Christmas service, and the pastor is free to use the word “Saviour” and talk about a virgin giving birth all he wants. I do indeed believe that the title “Saviour” is fully applicable, just not in the typical way. And I do believe in the miraculous birth of a divine being, but there’s a twist to that as well. Those will need separate posts to cover, and, true to my own beliefs, one of ‘em will have to wait until my Easter rant. I’ve probably pissed off enough people for this post as it is. :)

Have a good Christmas season, everyone, and may you and yours be blessed with peace and joy (and a speedy checkout at the stores of your choice. *grin*)

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17 Responses to “Heretical thoughts on Advent”

  1. ElTigre Says:

    Hey Lon,

    I came across the blog yesterday and I’ve really enjoyed catching up on your posts. It’s nice to find sincerity from a believer (in the divinity of Christ). I had a couple thoughts. One, it’s no secret that the majority of Americans that are self professed “Christians” or believers in the Judeo-Christian “God” will only really attend mainly two church services during the year, and we both know what those are. I’m of the opinion that Pastor’s take it upon themselves to try and “reach” these people, instead of resigning from the results and doing what God has called them to. My Pastor told me the other night that maybe the there is such a division between between believers and non-believers because believers spend so much time telling non-believers how sinful there are. I agree. Sometimes we forget how much Christ spurned the religious leaders of his time and gave the majority of his attention to the lower rung of society. He wasn’t interested in hanging out with those who had become so full of habit and ritual that they thought higher of themselves than they ever should.

    Also, I really hate the Christmas season. I feel like many treat it as an opportunity to catch up on all the spiritual/holy/reflective things they should have been doing throughout the year, but were just too busy. Then, when they’ve paid their dues they’re on their way. I don’t have a problem with people falling short, because I do so often, but it’s the attitude that gets me.

  2. Lon Says:

    I feel that the reason that many only attend church during Christmas and Easter is the same reason that many don’t attend at all. The part of us which seeks spirituality or a connection with God isn’t being fed or stimulated; We are thirsty, and the typical offerings of most churches are not quenching that thirst.

    Jesus said that if he was lifted up, he would draw all men to him. Interesting, then, that that’s not what we see happening. Many are reducing the frequency of their church attendance, even more are dropping their membership entirely. New seekers rarely stay; they’re not finding what they’re looking for.

    The reason for this is precisely due to the fact that Christianity isn’t based in Jesus’ teachings. They aren’t lifting Him up, they’re pinning Him down with doctrines that he never taught. Christianity isn’t about Jesus’ life, it’s about His death and resurrection. They misunderstand, at best, some of the things He said. Despite knowing that many times His words confused His own disciples, they still assume that Paul suffered no misconceptions and that his words are equal in authority with Jesus’ own words.

    Ahh well. The reformation of the Christian church from a religion about Jesus into the religion of Jesus won’t be sudden, although it is picking up steam. As Morpheus said in the movie The Matrix, some of these people aren’t ready to be unplugged. How many, for example, would totally lose their faith and be lost if one could absolutely prove that the Old Testament was entirely made up, or that Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin? These events wouldn’t effect a person who truly had faith, as belief that Jesus was divine doesn’t really need a virginal birth to support it; it’s just as miraculous if he were indeed conceived normally. But many people have placed their faith, not in great spiritual teachings, but in the reliability of the Bible. Take that away from them prior to them achieving a higher spiritual understanding and it is truly like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    Anyway, glad that you’re enjoying my little blog here!

  3. rasnsasnberry Says:

    I Enjoy the Christmas season. As a Christian it is easy to get excited about gift getting and giving and all the other secular practices related with it. These traditions and all of their commercial worldly implications, are still enjoyable. I agree that every aspect of Jesus’ life should be calibrated, not just his plan of salvation. however, i do not think that it is inappropriate to be reminded of Christ’s sacrifice for us, and the miracle of his resurrection. and with that said, the story of salvation can not be imparted without relaying the truth of those who are not saved.

  4. Michael Says:

    I think your understanding of Advent is flawed, which leads you to your resultant feelings on it. Advent is not yet the celebration of the birth of Jesus. It is anticipation of and preparation for it. The season recognizes the condition of the world into which Jesus was born and thus relays the need for His incarnation. We begin the celebration of the birth on sundown Christmas Eve. Advent is a penitential season. Christmas is a feast. Commercialism and American hyper-puritanism have led many to believe that Christmas begins the day after Thanksgiving and the lights go up. Christians in authentic practice refrain from celebratory festivities until after Advent. The very first Christians could not get through the celebration of the birth of Jesus without focus on his death either. The magi brought Him gifts that were essentially the fineries of a king, temple incense and embalming fluid. The gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth prefigure the crucifixion. Heavy allusions are intended; such as His being bound in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. This is a reference to his being enshrouded in the burial clothes and lain in the tomb. The entire nativity story is written in type/anti-type fashion. It is the gospel in miniature from mission, to death to resurrection and ascension. On Christmas, when I receive, the “blood [and body] of Christ,” I feel that I am fully receiving that little infant Jesus and it leads me to joy and strengthens me to service and giving. Without that it is a cute story that makes me feel fuzzy. In His body and blood, he comes to us fully as he came to us on that night as a child. It completes for us the essence of the incarnation personally and as the gathering body of Christ itself.

  5. Lon Says:

    @rasnsasnberry: I invite you to return here in a few days, I’m preparing a post about the commercialization of Cmas that you may enjoy. As you can see from my post however, we’ll have to agree to disagree regarding the appropriatness of spending time during the celebration of a miraculous, divine birth in lengthy discussions about the other various miracles of His life and the whole salvation plan. Salvation is about us, and, just like the people guilty of commercializing Christmas, discussing it turns a celebration which should be all about Him into nothing more than “me me me”. Can we not, just for one season, celebrate His birth and thank Him for coming before getting bogged down into the selfish “so what did you bring me? Got my salvation with you?” like so many children begging for their presents.

    @Michael: I stick by my understanding of the Advent season, and argue that you are the one who has neglected exactly half of the definition when you say that it is the “anticipation of and preparation for [his birth]“. You should read the link I included in the post, or look it up in the Catholic Encyclopedia, or any number of other Christian resources. I’m also concerned that you seem to be reading the Gospels as if they were a novel, with the author foreshadowing things with literary devices. You do realize that if you take 100 scholars who have spent their lives studying the New Testament, you’ll find that only about 50 of them actually believe the bit about the Magi as-is. And if visualizing drinking Jesus’ blood during a celebration of the infant’s birth is what works for you to achieve Joy and the feeling of receiving Him, well whatever floats your boat. Glad you get something out of it, but personally, such a concept offends and repulses me…I see it as quite psychopathic myself…and that is precisely the thing that causes me to be jolted out of my celebration and thankfulness of His birth. I cannot find fellowship in such an environment, and that’s exactly the basis of my post. I really really want to celebrate the gift of a divine birth, but I find I can’t truly do it when surrounded by people who are doing nothing more than lusting after the infant’s blood and their own salvation. For just one moment, my salvation doesn’t even matter….it’s all about Him and the thankfulness I feel that He took the trouble to come visit us for a spell.

  6. Mat Says:

    First let me start by saying

    Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of holiday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.

    The Scriptures themselves give warning against judging on how one celebrates Christ. That said, advent is a bit of a misnomer. It began as a Lenten season that the Orthodox still observe followed by an Octave (afterfeast) of celebration.

    Today with how our secular calendar works we view holidays as islands within the other 365 days but “Advent” in the Church is part of a continuous observance of Christ and his work. “Advent” is just a more salient and known part of that Liturgical Calendar. We have been celebrating the Lenten period before Nativity Fast for 2000 years. If you don’t like it don’t celebrate it and I will not judge you for doing so…

  7. Mat Says:

    I forgot to add that Christ’s birth is the first day of his Humiliation which also should be on the minds of Christians at this time of year.

  8. Lon Says:

    @Matt: Upon re-reading my post, you will see that I am not judging the celebration of Advent by others from any other perspective than my own. I’m lamenting that according to my own desires, I have a hard time finding a celebration of Christmas that resonates within myself.

    I was simply saying that to me, the celebration of the birth of Jesus is significantly diluted by concentrating on things other than that event itself. I was saying that for once, I’d appreciate a simple celebration of the miracle of a divine personality being installed into a human child, with a mind towards thankfulness that such a personality made the decision to come here and try to enlighten us humans some regarding how God thinks and acts. Especially when that personality had to know full well how poorly we’d treat him while he was here.

    I want a time to celebrate the 1st coming on its own; I think that discussions relating to the 2nd coming could be put on hold for just one tiny moment so we may fully celebrate the 1st. I’d like to pause and give thanks for His gift to us….His incarnation and the preceding decision to come visit with us for a while….prior to launching into the considerations of our personal salvation and his untimely death on a cross. It’s not that such things are of no import, indeed, there is an entire season devoted to that concept alone. At Easter, we hear the death/resurrection story, and at Christmas, we hear both the birth story and the death story. Personally, I never “celebrate” the reading of the first chapter of a new book by skipping forward to the end and reading that concurrently.

    Others can celebrate the birth however they wish, it causes me no harm. My lament, however, is that I have a hard time finding likeminded people to celebrate with. Is it truly impossible for a Christian to celebrate the birth of a divine infant without using the phrase “Blood of Christ” or worse, performing a ritual where said blood is consumed by “worshipers” who are more concerned with their own salvation than they are the spirit of genuine thanks for the arrival of one who illuminated the path for same?

    As I said in my post, it’s like we’re all impatient children who, when father arrives home, ignore the fact that he decided to come home and begin immediately clamoring over what other gifts he brought us. We’re saying “Nice baby. Now hurry up and die so we can get our salvation.” Ugh.

    And as for your comment on the “first day of his Humiliation”….yeah, see, you’ve been screwed by your diseased view of the whole thing. When reading the birth story, I don’t see any humiliation. I see a child, a promised deliverer, being exalted, worshiped, and appreciated. He didn’t begin to be humiliated until the orthodox of the day felt threatened by his teachings. The ones who meticulously followed the scriptures and claimed the most knowledge of God were His enemies, and they remain so to this day.

  9. Michael Says:

    It seems that you would like to ignore that Jesus came to die. We do celebrate with joy that Jesus was born. When we receive the body and blood on Christmas, the incarnation is made real for us. We are not blood-thirsty children slurping at the blood of a child. The body and blood of Jesus is truly and fully given in the bread and wine just as Jesus, fully God and fully man, came to us in all His fullness in the stable that night. On the night of His birth, Jesus came to us on our terms in a way that we can understand- physically. The same is true when He offers himself for heavenly food- in bread made of earthly, physical, tangible- even ingestible form. Christ’s birth is not diluted when we acknowledge these things- it is realized for all of the things that it is. It is otherwise actually STRIPPED of its miraculous nature. Christmas points to Easter- which is the greatest feast of Christianity. You speak suspiciously of the “ritual” performed whereby we consume Jesus’ blood. Jesus offered himself in the sacrament of the Holy Communion and commanded us “do this as often as you drink it in rememberence of me.” That Christ’s humiliation began at His birth is the beauty of the Nativity. Our God is not some far-off hard-ass of a God. He became the least of men, born of a poor mother, under threat of death, in a barn next to farm animals and dung and was laid in a feeding trough. The Word for whom and by whom all things were created, takes on flesh to become sin itself and offer hope. Christ, in the state of humiliation, is God in all His glory and is worshiped and exalted by those who love Him. It is the very fact that God is so loving as to put His divine Self in “our most tattered of shoes” that His love can be fully realized- that is, by His humiliation. So sweet is it that that light first shone in such a place. A light that can also shine through the messiness of our hearts and find us in the darkest of places. When we talk about His humiliation and exultation, we refer to whether or not He is using the fullness of the power of His godliness. While He is in the manger, He is allowing Himself to be that helpless infant- while having within Him the full power of God- which He also was fully. That the divine Word himself became human is an act of humiliation. His exultation has less to do with what anyone else did to Him. It was not the orthodox (meaning right believers) of His day that “humiliated” him, it was the legalist conservatives that persecuted him- more accurately speaking.

  10. Lon Says:

    The thing is, I agree with virtually everything you say in the post above, Michael. Although, I believe you misunderstand slightly: I’m not advocating, in the least, abandoning the acknowledgment of or rituals pertaining to His death and the meaning of same.

    Although I will disagree that the celebration of His birth on its own, absent any other concepts, ideas, doctrines, or whatever else, strips the miraculousness of His birth. To the extreme contrary, I believe it amplifies the true miracle here by focusing attention on it singularly rather than diluting our meditations on an array of other miracles.

    If we stipulate that the preexistent spirit/soul of the one we called Jesus is that of a divine personality, we have a miracle of huge significance right at the birth, with no other considerations necessary. Even if he didn’t die in a certain way, even if Mary wasn’t a virgin….what we have is indeed a big deal. A divine spirit decided to come here to sojourn for a while, and such a divine soul got installed into a human body. The method by which such a spiritual-domain and a physical-domain translation could happens is, to me, quite amazing. I bet the physics and mathematics (of the physical side at least) of this event are awesome. I bet it’ll take me at least a couple hundred million years of earth time before I begin to comprehend exactly what went down here. For now, its an amazing miracle.

    But the miracle itself isn’t even the big deal here, it’s that a divine personality would decide to grace us with His immediate physical presence. For that alone we should feel thanks and devote our meditations to the spirit of thankfulness and the consideration of why the decision was made to begin with.

    Now if it takes the addition of all the other various miracles to add up to something you find worth celebrating, that’s fine. Whatever is necessary for you to get into a thankful and worshipful mindset during the celebration is fine. I’m merely saying that I don’t need all the other stuff and would prefer a unique celebration for a unique event, and that it would be nice to be able to find others who share the same sentiment.

  11. Mat Says:

    Today Humiliation carries with it a certain amount of connotations but a thousand or so years ago this wasn’t the case.

    Humiliation and Humility carry the same Latin root absent the morpheme suffix. Humility is the state of being humble. Humiliation is the act of humbling.

    Without getting too much into kenosis, God humbled himself with the incarnation by becoming true man. When the Word became flesh his divinity wasn’t lost as Jesus is full and true God but in the unglorified humanity he took on all of the aspects of being human. He pooped, he felt pain, he got tired, he felt hunger, etc.

    All this is old hat:
    although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

  12. Lon Says:

    Generally speaking, when attempting to communicate with others, if one desires to use an ancient or obsolete meaning of a word rather than a current, widely-accepted and understood meaning, one should so note their deviation.

    If indeed you wish to say that Jesus humbled himself by coming here, I see little or no error in that concept. Humble service of others is indeed a doctrine He clearly taught.

    But in today’s world, the word “humiliation” carries with it significant other baggage and a different meaning, and by referring to “Christ’s humiliation” you risk being wholly misunderstood by an overwhelming majority of listeners…some of whom may be otherwise receptive to your ideas.

    The use of ancient meanings and interpretations is, I believe, yet another clue to a major problem with Christianity as it exists today. Christianity continues to try to rally people with the glorious trumpets of the middle ages, not realizing that the rallying calls which were highly effective in one age may not be as effective in other ages. For example, Jesus himself could not have convinced the people of Moses’ time of the efficacy or superiority of a fatherly God of love; they had no such mental capacity to comprehend such a concept. Likewise, the excessive and wildly dissimilar doctrines that various Christian sects have tacked onto Jesus’ relatively simple teachings have served, not to bring people to the light of God, but to push them away in great numbers.

    It is forever true that a house divided cannot stand, and that alone should be a sobering thought when one witnesses the current state of Christian sects and denominations. Even worse, there are no real visible attempts to unify with each other over the simple doctrines that Jesus actually taught, rather we witness the disease of splitting into even further subdivisions over irrelevant and petty variations of doctrines that He never taught. And this continues at an ever-accelerating rate.

    Martin Luther did Christianity a great service by severely pruning a tree which was bearing bad fruit, but he did not go far enough. The seed of that tree long before fell on poor ground and rather than transplanting it, he merely pruned its branches. Having grown back, it is yet again producing poor fruits. Ample evidence of this is everywhere one looks, from the decidedly un-Christlike behavior of both clergy and laity, the continual and accelerating splintering of the Church, the failure to attract new believers, and the loss of existent believers.

    Fortunately, once all of current Christianity dissolves into nothingness due to the ignorant infighting over extraneous concepts, the clear and bright light of Jesus’ doctrines themselves will be allowed to shine forth into the world and will once again attract the seekers of spiritual truth. When Jesus’ teachings alone are held up for all to see, unencumbered by other irrelevant doctrines, they will once again draw all men unto Him.

  13. Michael Says:

    The “exultation and humiliation of Christ” are current terms used within Christian culture and wider Christendom. I would not expect someone new to Christianity to understand what is meant by the “humiliation of Christ.” I would however expect someone with a blog relating to Christianity to know what someone meant when they used the widely-accepted term “humiliation” in reference to the nature of Christ. Mat was very accurate in his assessment of Christ’s state at the nativity when he referred to his “humiliation.”

  14. Lon Says:

    Again I say that if words are used outside of current people’s understanding, current people will not understand them, and the message is lost.

    Which is more important to you, accuracy in using ancient and so-called “widely accepted in Christian culture” meanings or meanings which the common person can understand and relate to? Did Jesus preach thus? Or did he make a serious effort to be well understood by the commoner?

  15. Michael Says:

    If I was talking to Bob on the street I probably would not use the words trinity, heretical, paradox, divinity, humiliation, martyr, Torah or manger. If I was discussing the nature of Christ or the practices of the Church with someone who broadcasts his opinions on those matters over the internet, I would assume that he would know said commonplace Christian vocabulary and principles or at least research them before launching ad hominems on educated Christians for using them.

  16. Lon Says:

    Ahh, but you are talking to “Bob on the street”. I’m a guy on the internet, posting my opinions.

  17. Michael Says: