For the past several decades, I’ve been wishing friends and familiars a “happy new year” — on the First Sunday of Advent, which marks the beginning of the liturgical year and thus the start of the really real “new year:” a new year of grace. That greeting is not just a bit of countercultural contrariness, however. It’s a way to remind myself that Christians ought to live by a different temporal rhythm, a different pace, than the culture we’re trying to convert. That reminder may be particularly necessary during the frenetic “holidays,” but it’s useful throughout the civil year as well. And as the impending 2016 seems likely to be full of — how to put it gently? — challenges, it’s worth pondering and praying over, this Christmastide, the truth through which Christians “read” history: the truth that salvation history, God’s work within his creation, unfolds inside, not alongside, what the world thinks of as “history.”
That salvific work began in earnest with the call of Abraham. It was experienced by the People of Israel during their Egyptian captivity, their miraculous exodus into freedom, their struggles to live in covenant relationship with God in the land they had been given as a patrimony, their exile in Babylon, their return to the land, and their contest with the pagan powers of the day. Through all of that “history,” a deeper history was unfolding, to which Moses, Elijah, David, and the prophets bore witness. And in that deeper history, the promises made to Abraham were being fulfilled, no matter how hard it was to discern that fulfillment or its trajectory.
The liturgical season of Advent — a month, more or less, in which the Church prepares annually for Christmas — is dominated by two figures whom Christians understand as a kind of pivot between God’s revelation to Israel and God’s revelation in his Incarnate Son.
The first of those figures is St. John the Baptist, whose ability to discern the history unfolding within what the world imagines to be “history” is first displayed before his own birth. Then, according to the Gospel story of the Visitation (Luke 1:39–56), the unborn child who will call Israel to a baptism of water and repentance recognizes his cousin Jesus, who will baptize the repentant with the Holy Spirit and with fire: As John’s mother Elizabeth puts it to her cousin Mary, “ . . . when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.” Later in the gospels, John reappears as a kind of prophetic wild man, living alone in the Judean wilderness, clad “in a garment of camel’s hair [with] a leather girdle around his waist,” sustaining himself on a diet of “locusts and wild honey” [Matthew 3:4]. He has no truck with the religious establishment of his day, whom he dismisses as a “brood of vipers” [Matthew 3:7], and his proclamation of the coming Reign of God is a proclamation of judgment: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” [Matthew 3:10]. As for the unrepentant, the “chaff,” they will “burn with unquenchable fire” [Matthew 3:12].
Yet for all that he appears in Scripture as someone utterly, uniquely intense — the biblical equivalent of what physicists would call a “singularity” — John, this bridge figure between the ancient prophets of Israel and the coming of the Messiah whom he heralds, is not about himself. On the contrary, after he baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River, John tells his own disciples that Jesus “must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). The Baptist’s prophetic witness is one of self-emptying through relentless truth-telling and sets the New Testament standard for political incorrectness; his passionate commitment to the moral truths given to the chosen people by God eventually costs him, literally, his head.
The Church’s meditation on the strangely compelling figure of John the Baptist during Advent is thus a challenge to the regnant self-absorption of this cultural moment: For if anything is a frontal assault on the 21st-century ideology of Self, it is John’s insistence that “He must increase, but I must decrease.” No expressive individualism there; no “I did it my way;” no public-life-as-reality-TV, Trump-style. “He must increase, but I must decrease”: that countercultural message from the one whom Christians revere as the culmination of the prophets of Israel is then embodied in the second great Advent figure who helps prepare the Church for Christmas, Mary of Nazareth.
Mary, too, is both pivot and link between God’s revelation to Israel and God’s revelation in his Son. Like Israel of old, she is both attentive to a possible word from God and puzzled, even startled, when it arrives: a combination well captured in Henry Ossawa Tanner’s splendid painting, The Annunciation. Like John, last of the prophets, Mary places herself, not at the disposal of her Self, but at the disposal of the divine will: “Be it done unto me according to your word” [Luke 1:38]. And, like John, Mary knows that she must decrease so that her son might increase: thus her last recorded words in the New Testament, to the waiters at the wedding fast in Cana, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:4).
In all of this, Mary both sets the pattern of Christian discipleship and appears to the eyes of Christian faith as the greatest of bridges between the Old and New Testaments. For as Luke presents the story of the Incarnation, Mary becomes, through her self-emptying and obedient acceptance of the divine will, the new Ark of the Covenant, in whom, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the glory of God once again dwells among his chosen people — this time, in the flesh: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35). Thus, through Mary’s “yes,” her fiat, the eyes of faith first glimpse the Thrice Holy God who is Trinity, and who, through her, blesses the world in a new and definitive way. And because God is a triune communion in which the three divine Persons live in complete self-gift and reciprocity, those disciples who live in the light and love of the Trinity can, even now, live beyond the paganism of Self, making their lives into a gift to others and thereby becoming a light to the nations.
Christmas is a richly symbolic, evocative antidote to the ideology of the imperial, autonomous Self: John the Baptist and Mary bear witness to the Law of the Gift inscribed in creation by the Triune God — the moral truth that fulfillment and human flourishing come through the gift of self, not the assertion of self. Christmas is where God’s revelation to the People of Israel meets God’s revelation in his Son. Christmas is where the drama of salvation history erupts into what the world knows as “history” through a shining star, an angelic choir, a faithful young couple, some startled herders, and wise men from a distant land. Two millennia of Christian disciples have known this about Advent and Christmas; few hymns express it better than that traditionally ascribed to St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the fourth century:
Veni, Redemptor gentium; O Come, Redeemer of the earth,
ostende partum Virginis; and manifest Thy virgin birth.
miretur omne saeculum: Let every age in wonder fall:
talis decet partus Deum Such birth befits the God of all.
Non ex virili semine, Begotten of no human will
sed mystico spiramine but of the Spirit, Thou art still
Verbum Dei factum est caro the Word of God in flesh arrayed
fructusque ventris floruit. the promised fruit to man displayed.
Alvus tumescit Virginis, The Virgin’s womb that burden gained,
claustrum pudoris permanet, its virgin honor still unstained.
vexilla virtutum micant, The banners there of virtue glow;
versatur in templo Deus. God in his temple dwells below.
Procedat e thalamo suo, Proceeding from His chamber free
pudoris aula regia, that royal home of purity
geminae gigans substantiae a giant in twofold substance one,
alacris ut currat viam. rejoicing now his course to run.
Aequalis aeterno Patri, O equal to the father, Thou!
carnis tropaeo cingere, gird on Thy fleshly mantle now;
infirma nostri corporis the weakness of our mortal state
virtute firmans perpeti. with deathless might invigorate.
Praesepe iam fulget tuum Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
lumenque nox spirat novum, and darkness breathe a newer light
quod nulla nox interpolet where endless faith shall shine serene
fideque iugi luceat. and twilight never intervene.
Sit, Christi, rex piissime, All praise, eternal Son, to Thee,
tibi Patrique gloria whose advent sets Thy people free,
cum Spiritu Paraclito, whom, with the Father, we adore,
in sempitern saecula. and Holy Ghost, for evermore.
[trans. J. M. Neale]
This article was originally published on National Review Online