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by Ted Schroder
December 2, 2007

J.B. Phillips, the New Testament translator, once wrote that Advent prepares us for the most important and significant event in the whole course of human history. But the towering miracle of God's visit to this planet on which we live, he claims, will be glossed over, brushed aside or rendered impotent by over-familiarity. The full weight of the event is not always appreciated. Christians believe that this man, who was born in Bethlehem, was truly the Son of God. We may believe that Jesus is still alive, yet we may be largely unaware of its intense meaning.

Do we, for instance, in our daily life, reflect with confidence that God has been here, here on this earth; that the infinite wisdom and power has humbly descended to human stature? We rejoice in the fact that God has actually been here - and that is one half of the meaning of Advent.

But there is another half. The eleven, who had had six weeks' experience of the risen Christ, were told after he had finally left their sight, that "this same Jesus will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven." (Acts 1:11)

There is no support in the New Testament whatever for the belief that one day all evil will be eradicated from the earth, all problems solved, and health and wealth be every person's portion! The New Testament is a book full of hope, but we may search it in vain for any vague humanist optimism. The second coming of Christ, the second irruption of eternity into time, will be immediate, violent and conclusive. The human experiment is to end, illusion will give way to reality, the temporary will disappear before the permanent, and the king will be seen for who he is. The thief in the night, the lightning flash, the sound of the last trumpet, the voice of God's archangel - these may all be picture language, but they are pictures of something sudden, catastrophic, and decisive.

The atheistic-materialist point of view is, despite its apparent humanitarianism, both misleading and cruel. In appearance it resembles Christianity in that it encourages tolerance, love, understanding and the amelioration of the human condition. But at heart it is cruel, because it teaches that this life is the only life, that we have no place prepared for us in eternity, and that the only realities are those we can appreciate in our present temporary habitation. It fosters the current hysterical preoccupation with physical security, which infects the lives of many professing Christians. We have never been promised physical security? They did not expect it in the early Church! Their security; their true life, was rooted in God. The daily insecurities of the decaying Roman Empire with its organized persecutions could not affect their basic confidence. When God decides that the human experiment has gone on long enough, Christ will come again. "So you also must be ready at any time, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him." (Matt.24:44)

This is what the New Testament teaches. This is the message of Advent: be alert, vigilant and industrious, so that Christ's coming for us at the end of our time on earth will not be a terror but an overwhelming joy.

According to an old saying, familiarity breeds contempt. There are situations where human beings are at first filled with awe, and then as they grow more and more familiar with them they experience first indifference, and then contempt. The "spiderman" who works on scaffolding hundreds of feet above the ground, has to be on his guard against this over-familiarity. The man who works with high-voltage electricity must also beware of becoming contemptuous of his danger. And anyone who knows the sea will say to you in effect, "By all means love the sea, but never lose your respect for it." Whenever familiarity breeds contempt there is potential danger.

The particular danger which faces us as Christmas approaches is unlikely to be contempt for the sacred season, but our familiarity with it may easily produce in us a kind of indifference. The true wonder and mystery of it may leave us unmoved. Familiarity may easily blind us to the shining fact that lies at the heart of Christmastide.

What we are in fact celebrating is the awe-inspiring humility of God. No amount of familiarity with the trappings of Christmas should ever blind us to its quiet but explosive significance. We believe that so great is God's love and concern for humanity that he himself became a man. Amid the sparkle and the color and music of the day's celebration we do well to remember that God's insertion of himself into human history was achieved with an almost frightening quietness and humility. There was no advertisement, no publicity, no special privilege; in fact the entry of God into his own world was almost heartbreakingly humble. In sober fact there is little romance or beauty in the thought of a young woman looking desperately for a place where she could give birth to her first baby. I do not think for a moment that Mary complained, but it is a bitter commentary upon the world that no one would give up a bed for the pregnant woman - and that the Son of God must be born in a stable.

At the time of this astonishing event only a handful of people knew what had happened. As far as we know, no one spoke openly about it for thirty years. Even when the baby was grown to be a man, only a few recognized him for who he really was. Two or three years of teaching and preaching and healing people, and his work was finished. By normal human standards this is a tragic little tale of failure, the rather squalid story of a promising young man from a humble home, put to death by the envy and malice of the professional men of religion. All this happened in an obscure, occupied province of the vast Roman Empire.

It is fifteen hundred years ago that this apparently invincible Empire utterly collapsed, and all that is left of it is ruins. Yet the little baby, born in such pitiful humility and cut down as a young man in his prime, commands the allegiance of millions of people all over the world. Although they have never seen him, he has become friend and companion to innumerable people. This undeniable fact is, by any measurement, the most astonishing phenomenon in human history. It is a solid rock of evidence that no agnostic can ever explain away.

That is why, behind all our fun and games at Christmastime, we should not try to escape a sense of awe, almost a sense of fright, at what God has done. We must never allow anything to blind us to the true significance of what happened at Bethlehem so long ago. Nothing can alter the fact that we live on a visited planet.

At Christmas we shall be celebrating no beautiful myth, no lovely piece of traditional folklore, but a solemn fact. God has been here once historically, but, as millions will testify, he will come again with the same silence and the same devastatingly humility into any human heart ready to receive him. "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come." (Matt.24:42)

(Adapted from J.B. Phillips, "The Christian Year," from Good News: Thoughts on God and Man, copyright Copyright 1963, The Macmillan Co., New York)

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