My family has always had a low taste for over the top hymn lyrics. My mother’s favorite line in the 1940 Episcopal hymnal came from James Russell Lowell’s protest against the Mexican War: “By the light of burning martyrs, Jesus’ bleeding feet I track.” As I kid, I was struck by a couple of verses in Charles Wesley’s “Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending” in which the poet seems a little too happy about the wretchedness of sinners who realize, too late, what is coming to pass:
Every eye shall now behold Him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.
Every island, sea and mountain,
Heav’n and earth, shall flee away;
All who hate Him must, confounded,
Hear the trump proclaim the day:
Come to judgment! Come to judgment!
Come to judgment! Come away!
Yet however Wesley’s tone might strike us, the poem as a whole points to one of the great truths of the Advent season and a reality we must contemplate as we prepare for our celebration of Christmas. That cute baby in the manger surrounded by shepherds and wise men, the object of so many sentimental verses and treacly paintings, isn’t the whole story of Christmas. Advent is a time to realize that God is coming into the world, he is getting closer by the hour, and his coming isn’t some quiet, creeping entrance by the back door. His coming is a transformative shock; his coming is like the coming of Hurricane Sandy but on a much larger scale.
That baby may look peaceful and happy, but what comes with him is the biggest upheaval the world has ever known.
Christianity isn’t a mythical religion about beautiful sentiments and inspiring stories. It is a historical religion: Christianity claims that the events at its center happened in history, it hopes to transform history and it professes to explain what history means.
Christianity is much more than a religion that explains our personal histories and our joys and our sorrows, though it is certainly that. It is a religion about the path of humanity as a whole, about the fate of the planet. And from a Christian perspective, since God became a human 2000 years ago, history has been headed in a new direction. From the time of the Roman Empire, when Christians fought infanticide (especially common where girls were concerned), sought to humanize slavery, enhance the place of women and provide charity and care for the sick right up through modern times, a new spirit has entered the world. This is not a matter of a few random acts of kindness here and there; it is about creating a culture and a civilization that broke the bounds of the old human world and brought us all somewhere new.
The mix of monotheism and Christian ethical perspectives helped the rise of science, supported the development of universities, opened careers to talent and in general laid the foundation for the explosion of technology that has so altered the world. Christianity incubated a set of political ideas, a culture of technological progress, a legal and social framework permitting new kinds of human interaction and in countless other ways laid the foundation for the radically new world we live in today.
Christians alone are not responsible for the transformation of the world, the industrial revolution, the emancipation of women, the rise of modern medicine, the rise of genuine tolerance and pluralism and the development of democracy, but every one of those things would have happened much slower if at all had it not been for the Christians among us.
A world that is full of Christians is a very different place from the world we would have if Christianity had never appeared. The rise of Christianity and its spread into virtually every culture and nation in the world is one of the most distinctive and consequential elements of world history. A failure to see this phenomenon for the unique, world altering thing that it is (with, to be sure, its downsides and limits as well as its achievements and inspirations) is a failure to come to grips with the basic facts of human life.
Christians believe, and in Advent it is a good thing to reflect on this belief, that this spread of Christianity across the world is both a sign and instrument of God’s entrance into human life. During his ministry on earth, Jesus walked through Galilee and Judea, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, challenging conventional pieties and showing people a new way to a new life. Today, literally billions of people are following however feebly in those footsteps, and all across the world today the sick are being healed, the poor helped, religious truth debated and lives changed on a scale unmatched since the dawn of time.
Serious Christians won’t try to turn this into a triumphalist history of an ever-ascending Church that is responsible for all the good in the human story. Smart and thoughtful Christians are all too aware of the shortcomings of individual Christians and Christian institutions, and well aware that Jesus’ prediction that both good and evil will grow together in the church has been amply justified by the facts. (And when Christians forget these realities or turn narrow and chauvinistic, we need to be reminded by non-Christians of various strips just how complex, mixed and in places tragic our history is.) Nevertheless, the history that Jesus set in motion by his life, death and, as Christians believe, resurrection 2000 years ago has continued to gain force and energy as it sweeps from continent to continent, region to region, transforming everything in its path.
The history at the heart of the Christian message isn’t an anodyne message of painless progress. As C.S. Lewis reminded his readers, Aslan is not a ‘tame lion’: God’s purposes in history can’t be neatly encapsulated into a reassuring novel of incremental, safe progress. God is not the God of Whig History, prepping the smooth road of human ascent and always to be found in the camp of the safely gradual liberal reformers and the moderate, thoughtful incrementalists.
If we look around us, we can easily see that the consequences of God’s entrance into the world are much more disruptive and revolutionary than that. The science that cures diseases and eases pain creates nuclear weapons. “Progress” isn’t just a comforting story of gradual increases in people’s standards of living; it is the story of overwhelming social and personal change, of billions of people leaving their traditional ways of life in the country, migrating halfway around the world and overthrowing the foundations of an old world before they really know what to expect from the new. The spread of Christianity itself isn’t simply the story of innocent missionaries walking from place to place, spreading the good news. It is bound up in the rise and domination of cruel and exploitative empires and ferocious wars. The “rise of human freedom,” very much part of this Christian history of change, isn’t simply the story of liberation. It is about vicious political and ethnic struggles, some of them genocidal, that continue into our times.
God’s entry into the world, the Advent we contemplate this season, is a storm, an earthquake, a meteor falling from the sky. God wants—which is to say that reality demands—that humanity move on. To make room for God in this world, we have to grow. If we don’t move and grow, we’ll be overwhelmed and crushed: deeply wailing, deeply wailing, we shall see what God is doing in the world.
If we think we can sit here peacefully, while God like the cosmic butler comes in and tidies up the world to our satisfaction, we reveal our profound ignorance about who he is and what he wants for us. God isn’t a butler tidying up the drawing room and preparing for a dinner party tonight. He is more like a baby whose time has come, and whose impending arrival sends waves of shock and panic, disrupts all schedules, cancels all appointments, and jolts life out of the old familiar path into something radically new. The new life he brings is beyond our imagining, but the pain of this childbirth will be extreme. The destiny God has in mind for humanity is infinitely great, far beyond our boldest ideas of who we are and what we can do, but in order to get there we and the political and social worlds around us are going to have to be broken and remade — and this process is very much the basis of the changes so rapidly unfolding around us today.
It isn’t always easy to glimpse the footsteps of God in history, but one overwhelming sign has been given to modern people that God is pushing into history the way a new baby struggles to be born. We can call it the Sign of the Apocalypse: not a Mayan calendrical apocalypse tied to gnomic prophecies and intricate date calculations, but the unmistakable reality that eternity and ultimate questions of survival and meaning are forcing themselves onto humanity’s agenda in a way we have never seen before.
The survival of humanity is no longer a mythical or abstract philosophical question; with the atomic bomb and the complex processes of industrialization, we have reached the point where the survival of humanity has become a political question. As a species we can take steps that make our destruction less likely, or we can take steps that bring humanity to the brink of extinction. Humanity can no longer piddle along doing its ordinary business and acting as if basic decisions on war and peace, technological development and industrial growth were political questions that touched only tangentially on cosmic realities and values. In our time, political mistakes can have apocalyptic consequences; politics and very ordinary politicians can bring about the end of the world.
Questions of ultimate concern have broken into matters of secular politics; God has invaded and overthrown the barriers inside which we tried to conduct human life with respect only to secular and ordinary concerns. Now politicians thinking about anything from responding to Iran’s nuclear drive to climate change stand in the realm of eternity: the decisions they make or fail to make may determine whether humanity has a future on this planet.
In 1945 the world entered an Age of Apocalypse. The nuclear bombing of Japan made plain that humanity’s quest for technological mastery had taken us to a place where ultimately the choice of life or death for the species would lie in human hands. And at the same time, the revelation of the Holocaust as Russian and western soldiers marched into Hitler’s falling empire revealed just what evil can be found inside the human heart. Nazism did not arise in the borderlands and the twilight countries where literacy was low, science barely understood and the masses knew little or nothing about the great cultural and social accomplishments of the modern era. It rose in what by many measures was the most enlightened, most advanced and best educated large country in the European world.
Humanity had acquired exterminating and annihilating weapons without acquiring the ability to exterminate and annihilate the evil lurking inside.
And if all this was not enough, the Holocaust and the subsequent establishment of the State of Israel put the Jewish people at the center of world history in a way that was new in thousands of years of Jewish history. The objects of genocidal Nazi rage, killed in the millions while an abject world looked on, reestablished a Jewish Commonwealth in the land from which their forefathers had been expelled at a time when politicians still wore togas and almost 70 years later that Commonwealth continues to stand in the center of world politics, the object of dispute after dispute, with the city of Jerusalem at the heart of that conflict and the site, of all things, of the ancient Jewish Temple at the core of the Jerusalem dispute.
History became Biblical and apocalyptic in 1945 and it has only become more so ever since. We live under the sign of the Apocalypse, in the shadow of the end times, whether we think of nuclear war, runaway climate change, a global clash of civilizations or what some thinkers call the ‘Singularity’, a radical discontinuity in human history (under which heading they lump a variety of more or less plausible dangers ranging from nuclear war through a global takeover by super intelligent computers or the development of effective psychological immortality through uploading human intelligence to the cyberworld). More such possibilities will no doubt appear and become probable as time and technology continue their march. The rate of scientific advance continues to accelerate; we are pushing farther and farther out of humanity’s comfort zone into a new world of hope and fear.
As we face that future, it seems more and more clear that Something or Someone is coming. The world that we’ve known will not go on forever; we are reaching towards a climax or conclusion of some kind. Transcendently good or catastrophically bad, we cannot say. But the world is in the shadow of something very big. We are waiting; it is Advent.
Small wonder that in these times many people in the religious world reach for literal interpretations of the prophecies in their faith tradition about the end of the world. That is true not only of Christians but of Muslims, Jews and others as they use the tools their religions provide them to come to terms with humanity’s onrushing, mysterious fate. And small wonder, too, that more secular minds are driven toward causes, concerns and ideas reflecting the looming End of History. On the one hand, idealists and optimists hope we are on the verge of a global world of peace, freedom and abundance like the Biblical Millennium (a thousand year reign of justice and peace); pessimists think less about building utopia and more about stopping mass death by abolishing nuclear weapons or halting climate change in its tracks.
This is what Advent, the season before the Arrival, is all about: hopes, fears, dreams, speculation, a sense that something huge is on its way, but also a confounding inability to grasp and assess the new reality before it arrives.
Christians like everybody else must pass through this incomplete and unsatisfactory time, but Christians share something precious and positive that much of the world doesn’t have. Christians have a clue. Christians know something about the God who is coming. He came first as a baby in the manger, as one man alone and without power in a world that for the most part did its best to ignore him. He is coming back as the center of every eye, an inescapable storm, a historical tsunami that will engulf the whole world in ways we cannot now imagine, but he is the same person now he was then, and the way to his heart is still open.
The whole world knows something is coming; Christians believe that that something is God, and that he is coming back.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.