The Reason for the Season:
Christology Through the Liturgical Year
Chapter 1: Advent (I)
Copyright 2000, Telford Work. All rights reserved. Draft: Do not cite without permission.
It Doesn't Start With Jesus
We can hardly imagine a slower start to a Gospel than Matthew's forty-two step genaeology of Jesus (Matt. 1:1-17). The evangelist's rhetorical instincts, so powerful in his Pentateuchal arrangement of Jesus' discourses, seem to have failed him. (Was it writer's block?) The Revised Common Lectionary understandably skips these verses, beginning its Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday in Advent with the story of Mary and Joseph. What congregation would sit through all that begetting?
Yet Matthew's rhetorical instincts did not fail him. His genaeology, so offputting to modern readers and so awkward in liturgical contexts, is an integral part of his message. It was powerful to his original readers, and it should be powerful to us. Like the Formula Quotations and other literary devices, Matt. 1:1-17 proclaims a setting of expectation and fulfillment that is vital to Jesus' story. The gospel of Jesus begins with those who awaited him.
Yet expectation is more than the teaser for Jesus' story. Growing up and living as a Galilean Jew, Jesus shares in the same Jewish expectation that he personally fulfills. His public ministry begins with it in the Jordan, and ends with it at Golgotha. Matthew's Jesus is not Robert A. Heinlein's "stranger in a strange land."1 He is not T.J. Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth (David Bowie's character), an alien with no earthly history and no human community.2 He is not a god descended from Olympus on an unsuspecting world. He is not even Matthew's angel of the Lord, come from heaven bearing God's message of salvation (Matt. 2:21). Jesus is not merely juxtaposed with humanity. Being human, he shares in humanity's past. He does not float above first-century Judaism, but works within it and for it.
How appropriate, then, that Advent begins the Christian year. Advent is the season when Israel's Christian descendants remember the expectations that date from the time of the Prophets through the era of Jesus' ministry (and, for Jews, to this day). Advent confesses the continuity between Jesus' arrival and God's saving activities that led up to it. In Advent the Church celebrates both Jesus' coming, and Israel's awaiting the Messiah's coming. These two aspects of Christology resemble what E.P. Sanders calls Jesus' two contexts: The theological context of Israel's salvation-history, and the historical setting of Jesus' own career.3 Without both, Jesus is unintelligible.
The season of Advent begins our Christology not in Galilee, not even in Bethlehem, but in an Israel led by judges and a young shepherd king (2 Sam. 7:8-16, the Old Testament reading for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary).4 Advent points us back beyond the Nativity, revealing a Messiah already alluded to in God's words to Moses (Deut. 18:15-16, Acts 3:22-24), Abraham (Gen. 22:17-18, Gal. 3:16), and Eve (Gen. 3:15, Rom. 16:20).5
In doing so, the practice of Advent affirms a central Christological axiom that has often gone forgotten, ignored, or wished away, yet which lies at the heart of some of the most important Christological insights of our century: Jesus was (and is) a Jew. As a first-century Galilean, Jesus practiced Judaism. Luke portrays him as being circumcised and presented according to Torah (Luke 2:21, 22, 27, 39; Christmas Sunday, Year B), occasions the Church celebrates on January 1 (the eighth day of Christmas) and February 2 (forty days after Christmas).6 The most public moments of Jesus' career are fundamentally Jewish: Associations with John, friction with Jewish leaders, provocative actions at the Passover in Jerusalem, death as "king of the Jews."
A seemingly incidental reference in the synoptic story of the healings at Gennesaret speaks volumes. The crowds sought Jesus that "they might touch even the fringe of his garment" (tou kraspedou tou himatiou autou, Mark 6:56 and Matt. 14:36). The language refers to Jesus' prayer shawl, a part of the liturgical equipment of every Jewish man (Num. 15:38, Deut. 22:12). Like all Jewish men, Jesus put on the tefillin and his prayer shawl when he prayed the Shema, kept the Law, and he attended synagogue on the Sabbath and read from the Law and the Prophets there (Luke 4:16-17). This much is obvious to scholars who study "the historical Jesus": As a product of Galilean culture, Jesus of course shared in the habits of his community.
Yet Jesus' Jewishness is not an incidental feature of the Gennesaret pericope. Both synoptic parallels echo the Septuagintal Zech. 8:23 to suggest a fulfillment of its prophecy: "In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe (tou kraspedou) of a Jew, saying, `Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'" The particulars of Jesus' Jewishness are of saving consequence.
Jesus' Jewishness is more than his own practice of Judaism. Judaism is Jesus' horizon. It provides very possibility of his messianic career. Judaism makes Jesus and his ministry Jewish. They can only be properly understood against the backdrop of first-century Israel and Israel's eschatological expectation. And this means that the history of Judaism is vitally important for Christology, for Israel's Messiah stands as the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel's ancestors.
These points will reassert themselves throughout our Christology. They need no more demonstrating here.
Or do they? Ironically, the most famous current variety of academic Christology (at least as far as the popular press is concerned) dismisses the positive value of both these contexts. The Jesus Seminar, which represents this school of Christology in the popular consciousness, maintains that "the historical Jesus" did not share in the Jewish eschatological expectation around him, nor did he plant the transformed eschatological expectation of the early Christians. Why is this? Because the Jesus Seminar's methodological presuppositions would no longer be defensible if he did. In the words of the introduction to the Jesus' Seminar's Five Gospels:
We have to be able to pick out a distinctive voice in a Galilean crowd. If Fellows of the Jesus Seminar were to isolate the words of Jesus from other voices in the gospels, they had to make this assumption: Jesus' characteristic talk was distinctive it can usually be distinguished from common lore. Otherwise it is futile to search for the authentic words of Jesus.7
The contrast between Christian language or viewpoint and the language or viewpoint of Jesus is a very important clue to the real voice of Jesus. The language of Jesus was distinctive, as was his style and perspective, if we take the bedrock of the tradition as our guide.8
In other words, what can be attributed to other first-century schools of Judaism cannot be certified as distinctively Jesus-like, so "the historical Jesus" cannot have shared such first-century Jewish worldviews. And what becomes the language of Christian traditions cannot be certified as distinctively Jesus-like either, so "the historical Jesus' cannot have shared first-century Christian worldviews. The Jesus' Seminar's radical use of this "criterion of dissimilarity" thus lifts Jesus from his two contexts, from the world of his contemporaries and from the biblical world of salvation-history. He floats free, "a traveling sage who traded in wisdom."9
Is the Jesus Seminar simply doing the best it can in the murky business of reconstructing the most legendary figure of human history? Or does the criterion of dissimilarity protect the distinctives of the scholars' own worldviews? It is hardly accidental that these sages who trade in wisdom think of themselves as liberated from "under the tyranny of either [Christian] neo-orthodoxy or an eschatological [Jewish] Jesus."10 As we shall see, a more responsible use of the criterion of dissimilarity yields a different picture in both respects. And for this conclusion, we need not rely on the fundamentalist straw-men that the Jesus Seminar constructs. Sanders and other sober historians of the Greco-Roman world do the job nicely.11 As we listen to them, we hear what Advent already tells us: The world of first-century Israel is the indispensable context for understanding Jesus of Nazareth. To that world we turn.
Messianic Expectation and Messianic Apathy
Ancient Israel experienced several profound needs from the time of its Babylonian exile, through its return to Palestine under foreign supervision, which in Jesus' lifetime came from Rome. The first was the desire for political sovereignty or "home role." This was sometimes expressed in the longing for a renewed Davidic kingdom.12 Jews envisioned its arrival in different ways, but common to them was hope for God's assistance in restoring their autonomy and ending the embarrassment of living as a puppet kingdom under Roman control. The second felt need was for a renewed connection to God, in the form of purified worship. "Justice" well summarizes Jewish expectations: First-century Jews looked forward to the restoration of just rule (meaning upright Jewish rule) in Palestine, freedom from Gentile domination, and the end of injustices among Jews and before God. These yearnings are well reflected in the Prophets and Psalms, as the Advent lectionary readings attest.13 Their canonical use in first century Jewish piety undoubtedly intensified their narrative and symbolic power for many Jews
Scholars of first-century Judaism have pointed out that it is a Christian oversimplification to reduce this expectation to explicitly messianic expectation. The mood of the times was not a particularly fervent longing for the person of the Messiah, but for the utopian conditions he would usher in. A broader, more helpful category is simply eschatological expectation. Sanders prefers a name that is broader still: divine expectation.14 Jews looked forward to a Israel's restoration in the end-times in many different ways. This restoration might involve no Messiah, or one, or even two; at Qumran we find the expectation of both a royal "messiah of Israel" and a priestly "messiah of Aaron" who would preside together over the elect in the Messianic age.15
The great variety of Jewish attitudes suggests that while it is fair to say that "Messiah was expected," Jewish messianic expectation was probably not as widespread as we think,16 and it centered on justice rather than the judge who might bring it (Zeph. 3:14-20; Third Sunday, Year C; though cf. John 1:47). While they waited, the Qumran community repudiated the official institutions of worship in Jerusalem the high priest (who was himself an agent of Roman influence) and the Temple priesthood, and even the Temple itself17 most of Israel accepted the compromised conditions of its life more passively. Palestine was no political powderkeg. For all we know, much of Palestine was better characterized by messianic apathy than by messianic expectation. Sanders and Cochran are right to warn Christians away from distorting ancient Judaism into a caricature.
The threat of insurrection was constant, grounded in the Prophets' promises and in a history of bloody conflict between Palestine and Rome, and Rome took it seriously.18 Certainly the Jewish War of 66-70 was fueled by Jewish expectation and Roman fear. And Sanders says "some, perhaps most" of violent conflict in first century Palestine reflects a hope of divine intervention by an anointed (that is, messianic) representative of God.19
The Gospels emphasize such expectation, making the Roman presence in Israel sound much more pervasive than it actually seems to have been, and Jewish expectation more intense.20 And Advent's lectionary readings naturally concentrate on precisely the texts that nourished the expectation most compatible with Christian belief (along with New Testament texts proclaiming their fulfillment): 2 Samuel 7:8-16, Jeremiah 33:14-16, Micah 5:2-5a, Malachi 3:1-4, and above all the Psalms (24, 72:1-8, 89) and Isaiah (7:10-16, 11:1-10, 40:1-11, 61:1-11). Then is Advent really an appropriate means to stress Jesus' Jewishness? To read the Advent readings as representing the everyday faith of first-century Israel distorts Judaism in exactly the way Sanders and Cochran oppose. It takes us to the Jesus Seminar's false opposite a "Judaism" reduced to Messianic expectation. While the center of Israel's faith (and, presumably, Jesus' faith) was the Law as well as the Prophets, no texts from the Torah are read in the four Sundays of Advent. Thus it is easy to see the Prophets as antagonists of Mosaic Yahwism, rather than its revivalists, as if ancient Israel were looking forward to its own redundance!
The center of Israel's hope, then as well as now, was re-storation and re-newal to the glory it enjoyed in its Golden Age under David and Solomon not freedom from the Law, but the fulness of the Law's promised justice. Synagogue and Temple worship did not seek to placate a tyrannical deity who oppressed weak sinners with his burdensome Law, but to celebrate the justice Israel was already experiencing through the Law and the promises as it awaited God's further intervention. The shallow picture a naïve reading of Scripture conveys to many modern-day antinomians distorts the expectations of ancient Israel, as well as the significance of Jesus' own career. It undermines rather than serves Christology.
Jesus' first (salvation-historical) context thus leaves us with three questions. First, how important are the differences between the critical historical pictures of Jewish messianic expectation and the canonical pictures? Second, how relevant to Jesus' specific career is either set of pictures? Is the canonical picture essential to understanding Jesus' career, as the Christian tradition has generally taught? Is it marginal to his own program, as liberal Protestant life-of-Jesus research treated it and as the Jesus Seminar and many in the so-called "Third Quest" contend today? And if it is important, then does eschatological expectation show us a Messiah who has fulfilled God's promises, as supersessionist Christianity and realized eschatology suggest? Or is it essential for the opposite reason, revealing a Jesus who failed to fulfill the promises, as later Judaism concluded and Schweitzer hypothesized? Or is the truth more complex than any of these options? Third, is the practice of Advent part of the solution, or merely part of the problem? In turn, these three questions bring us to Sanders' second context, which is the particular career of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus' Career: Fulfillment and Transformation
This second context offers a way out of the morass. For the moment, we can bracket the question of Jewish eschatology in general, and concentrate on its character in and around Jesus of Nazareth. And here the New Testament offers a consistent and critically reliable description: Whatever the intensity of messianic expectation elsewhere in first-century Palestine, it was fairly intense among both Jesus and his followers.
Jesus' unforgettable public career, a career whose highlights are accessible even to modern historical criticism, reveals not a traveling sage who traded in wisdom, but a traveling prophet who traded in Jewish eschatological images and symbols. Both Jesus and some of his disciples began as disciples of John the Baptist, a prophet of national restoration.21 Jesus' first followers are remembered particularly in the Gospel of John as sharing in this expectation: "`We have found the Messiah'" (John 1:41). "`We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph'" (John 1:45). "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel" (John 1:49)! So John begins with an urgent theme of impending apocalyptic fulfillment. Here the Fourth Gospel is typical; in their own ways, the other Gospels and early confessions of the Church make similar points. The age of expectation is drawing to a close; the age of fulfillment is dawning; and at the turn of the ages lie the speech-acts of the Nazarene artisan. Far from dispensing the innocuous wisdom of a sage, Jesus' style is one of symbolic provocation.
Jesus' symbolism is not lost on those around him. Both the crowds and the disciples see Jesus and his works through eschatological lenses (Mark 8:28-29). Enough of Jesus' symbolic world is shared by the crowds who surround him that his provocations earn him the enmity of Jewish crowds and authorities and swift death on a Roman cross. The "self-effacing, modest, unostentatious" traveling sage of the Jesus Seminar (whom no Roman would bother to crucify) is no more persuasive a reconstruction than the eighteenth and nineteenth century construals Schweitzer decimated.22 The answer to our second question expectation's importance to Jesus' career is clear: It is important indeed.
Of course, it is not so simple as the gospels' opening narratives suggest. While in one sense, the rhetorical high point of the Gospel of Mark is Peter's confession of Jesus in 8:29, in another sense the story only begins there. Rather than simply proceeding to usher in the kingdom everyone has expected, Jesus begins "to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again" (Mark 8:31). Here lies a reason for the difference between the critical and the canonical pictures of first-century eschatology: On the one hand, Jesus' ministry can only be properly appreciated against the backdrop of ancient Jewish expectation, and specifically Jewish messianic expectation. On the other hand, it can only be properly appreciated as a transformation of that expectation: Away from a King who would come in glory and restore Israel's political freedom and Temple worship, and toward a servant-King who suffers and dies and rises again as part of the eschaton's arrival.
Which then is the right background for appreciating Jesus' ministry? The Old Testament's eschatological prophets? The New Testament's eschatological revisionists? The many currents of the Jewish "mainstream"? Rome's keepers of the peace? The Zealot and Essene separatists? Do we listen to those who claim that Jesus is the typological fulfillment of the towering figures of Israel's history Abraham, Moses, and David? Or to those who point out that Jesus' life looks biographically quite different from all three?
These questions seem to be motivated entirely by the modern historical-critical agenda. In fact, they motivate the New Testament writings themselves. Jesus' opponents (some of whom are his own disciples) represent alternative eschatologies and varieties of messianic expectation. These are essential players in both the gospel narratives and the rhetorical audiences of the Pauline and catholic letters. Jesus' movement is an argument within the Jewish eschatological tradition. Zealots, Sadducees, Romans, and Samaritans like the devil in the wilderness pose the interpretations of messianism without which Jesus' transformation of the category of "messiah" could never be appreciated. They are, so to speak, Israel's loyal opposition, among whom the early Christians arise and against whom they struggle. Far from ignoring them, the New Testament's one-sided arguments presuppose them. The biblical bias distorts the picture only for readers who no longer appreciate the strength of these other positions, and cannot understand how Jesus' contemporaries could not have recognized his status as Messiah. For them, the gospels' caricatures are real.
The capacity of this naïve reading strategy to feed Christian triumphalism and anti-Semitism has finally been appreciated. What remains underappreciated is that this view of Jesus and his context also empties Christianity of its confessional content. The gospels' polemics call for a response of conviction and trust, not dispassionate historiographical judgment. Jesus' status as Messiah is a faith claim, not simply a proposition. It requires eyes, ears, and lips of faith.
So does the practice of Advent. Christians come together in December and proclaim the past and future turn of the ages in the arrivals of Jesus of Nazareth, in the midst of what looks like a normal, noneschatological world. Like Jesus among his disciples, and like the New Testament Church among its scoffers and persecutors, the Church gathers to make what looks like a ludicrous claim: That the last days have come, and the end draws near.
Advent's Solution to the Modern Christological Dilemma
This is why Advent is not simply a convenient placeholder for this chapter's material on Jesus' contexts. It is how the memory of these contexts is practically embodied and reconciled by those who confess Jesus as Lord. We answer our third question (Is Advent part of the solution, or part of the problem?) by showing how Advent answers our first question (What is the relationship between the "public" or "critical" complexity of Jewish expectation, and its canonical picture?). For the practice of Advent is itself a practical reconciliation of eschatological time, salvation-historical time, linear time, and cyclical time that arises out of Jewish and Christian theological convictions. Advent teaches us how to practice the eschaton in our own times. Unlike every other season of the liturgical year, Advent is not an anniversary of an event. (Even Lent's forty days commemorate Jesus' time in the wilderness.) Yet it takes on the characteristics of an anniversary, by remembering in calendar time the once-future expectation of ancient Israel, its transformation in the concrete history of Jesus, and the present expectation of Jesus' eschatological community. It locates eschatological time, which is as elusive as time gets, in concrete time. It plots the linear character of Jewish apocalyptic time (if linear is the right word) in the cyclical patterns of natural human history. In Advent as in Passover, the past and future eschaton invade the natural present, re-forming it and lending it significance without ever superseding it. The internal logic of Advent respects Jesus' two contexts in spite of the tensions secular modernity feels between them. It provides the indispensable backdrop according to which the rest of the liturgical year (and by analogy, the rest of Christology) maintains its historical and eschatological significance. (If this seems too lofty a claim for a season that arose rather late in the evolution of the Christian year, consider the disorientation we would now feel if one year's Ordinary Time simply collided into the new year's Christmas. It would be as if the Church were celebrating the arrival of a man who fell to earth!)
As we have shown, we do not need to practice Advent to reject the non-eschatological Jesus of the Jesus Seminar. But Advent makes Sanders' historiographical point in practical and salvation-historical terms that is, in theological terms by highlighting the shambles the Third Quest's denial of Jesus' eschatological self-understanding makes of his beginnings, his career, his death, his legacy, and his Church. Just how could fans of the Jesus of The Five Gospels express their convictions about his role in human history?
We also do not need Advent to justify why our Christology does not follow Schweitzer in his broad conclusions that Jesus' messianic claims were simply mistaken. Wolfhart Pannenberg makes the point historiographically, and we will return to it below.23 Yet Advent highlights in practical and salvation-historical terms the problems that rejecting Jesus' messiahship holds for those who would worship the God of Jesus Christ. If Jesus was wrong, then his opponents were right. And if his opponents were right, why pay attention to him at all?
What does Advent tell us about Jesus that these other methodologies by themselves cannot? For one thing, Advent locates Christian practice right in the middle of academic Christology's principal battleground. It highlights precisely the issue over which modern Christology finds itself in strenuous debate the significance of Jewish eschatology and names it not merely an academic issue, but a confessional one.
In comprehending the historical and salvation-historical dimensions of Christology, Advent also offers Christology a potential answer to how they should inform each other. Since Advent negotiates these dimension, it presents itself as one possible solution to the problem. A critical Christology can therefore put Advent's Christological conclusions to the test. We can regard the Christian year as itself a tradition of Christological reflection, as a massive Christological work in progress, and follow the liturgical year to discern its answer.
Here Advent takes Christology into a very interesting place, for Christians understand the season both to remember the partial fulfillment of God's prophetic promises that Jesus' first coming brought, and to anticipate the final fulfillment that Jesus' second coming promises. The discontinuities between promise, expectation, and fulfillment are already accommodated and even celebrated in Advent's eschatology. In Jesus, Israel got both more and less than Israel expected. Thus the season of Advent (properly observed) is not an anti-Semitic occasion for smug, realized eschatology. Nor is it a Jewish season of wholly futurist eschatology that "looks for another" (Matt. 11:3, Luke 7:19). Nor is it an existential season of non-eschatological apathy and despair. Advent is a Christian season that celebrates what Jesus brought, while honoring the undeniable fact that Jewish messianic expectation failed to match up perfectly with the Messiah who in fact arrived.
These discontinuities are of positive significance for Christology, for they set up the messianic expectation that continues to characterize the Christian community that lives in the new messianic age. God's answered and unanswered promises set up the categories of eschatology that converge in Jesus' past, present, and future work. Advent thus frames our entire Christology, as it frames the liturgical year, and as the issue of eschatology frames the current debate over Jesus: It sets the stage for what happens, and what is yet to happen, in the ministry of Jesus the promised Messiah.
We will only finish exploring this topic at the end of this project, when we return to Advent to explore Jesus' second coming. Here we will concentrate on the first.
Gospel Narratives: Beginning with John
Having presented the relevant Old Testament texts on Israel's hope, Advent interprets them in terms of the Gospels, where it teaches us how the first Christians themselves interpreted Jesus according to first-century eschatological expectation. And here we meet an important, enigmatic figure in Jesus' life: John the Baptist.24
The Baptist is a prominent figure in all four Gospels. The early Church is often thought to have been embarrassed by Jesus' association with him, and the Gospel writers are commonly alleged to have spun their accounts of Jesus' baptism away from its prima facie meaning. If this is such an embarrassment, it is surprising that three of the four Gospels practically lead with John. One normally buries details about which one is truly embarrassed; yet only in Matthew does much material precede the Baptist's appearance (3:1). What then is the reason?
It is Luke who ties Jesus' ministry into Israel's awaited deliverance most thoroughly and beautifully, and so it is on Luke's account that we will concentrate here. It opens with a priestly family, obedient and upright, but nevertheless without children (Luke 1:5-7) exactly the kind of couple the God of Abraham loves to drop in on. And in the Temple, Zechariah meets an angel, who announces the answering of his prayers and the birth of his son, who
will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared (Luke 1:16-17).
As in all the Gospels, the Baptist sets the stage for Jesus' ministry, announcing his arrival and preparing the way for him (echoing Isaiah 40:3). But in Luke, even John's conception is a kind of dawning of the age of fulfillment. Just as Luke refuses to end his Gospel with Jesus' ascension, so he refuses to begin it with his arrival. The Gospel (and thus the Christian year) is more than the earthly life of Jesus.
Sanders notes that few historical-critical accounts of Jesus have found much positive significance in Jesus' relationship with John. Without accepting the canonical portraits as historical, he proposes that Jesus may have seen himself as "supplementing and thus completing John's work." John was a prophet of Israel's coming national restoration, calling all Israel back to the faith of Moses. He warned of God's judgment and called for repentance, "but too few had responded. Jesus then set out to promise inclusion to the most obvious outsiders." If Sanders is right, then Jesus' ministry endorses, presupposes, and furthers the Baptist's ministry: "Jesus thought of someone else, John, as having called all Israel to repent." Yet it distinguishes itself from earlier prophetic careers in its openness to sinners qua sinners. As an illustration of his argument Sanders offers the parable of the banquet (Matt. 22:1-10, Luke 14:15-24), in which outcasts replace those first called "we add, by John."25
In other words, the Gospel begins with John, not because of a kerygmatic need to cover up Jesus' sinful past, but because Jesus' work on behalf of Israel's lost sheep follows up on John's frustrated work of preparing the whole nation for God's coming judgment. In liturgical terms, the Christian year begins with Advent and concentrates on the Baptist and the Old Testament Prophets not just because they point beyond themselves to Jesus, but because through these messengers God was really at work, blessing a chosen people and preparing them for their Messiah's arrival.
Jesus as the Goal of Advent
Luke's advent narrative now moves to its climax, which is Gabriel's announcement to Mary (celebrated nowadays as the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25). Here Israel's salvation-history stands on the brink, as the angel tells Mary she will conceive and bear a son, Jesus, the Son of the Most High: "And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end" (Luke 1:26-33). Luke's account is true to the spirit of Jewish expectation as Sanders describes it: While not explicitly mentioning a "messiah," the themes identified with eschatological expectation are unmistakable: David's throne, Jewish reign over Israel, an eternal kingdom.
When Mary asks how this can happen, the angel answers that "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). Mere messianic expectation is transformed: Jesus will not merely be a king, but "the holy Son of God." While the term "Son of God" is a significant Christological title in the New Testament, biblical scholars are right to caution that "Son of God" language does not necessarily imply divinity. It applies to angels, Israel, Israel's king, even to Adam in Luke 3:38. It indicates election and special relationship to God, not the later Nicene sense of eternal begottenness of the Father.26 Even so, it is clear that God's promises to Israel are being fulfilled and over-fulfilled in Jesus. The God of Mary's ancestors is (in Matthean language) emmanu-el, God-with-us. Luke 1 leads us from the question of when Israel will be delivered, to ask what it can possibly mean that Jesus is the Son of the Most High.
Mary's grateful response to this outpouring of eschatological grace is cast in the images of promise and fulfillment of Hannah's prayer in 1 Sam. 2:1-10. There Mary's typological predecessor, having dedicated little Samuel to God, prays:
My heart exults in YHWH; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.
There is no Holy One like YHWH, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for YHWH is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.
YHWH kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
YHWH makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes, and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are YHWH's, and on them he has set the world.
He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
for not by might does one prevail.
YHWH! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven.
YHWH will judge the ends of the earth;
He will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.27
Of course, every word of this messianic, eschatological hymn applies to Jesus, as Luke reminds us in Mary's reply to Elizabeth (Luke 1:46-55, Fourth Sunday, Year C):
My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For he has looked upon the humility of his slave girl.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
For the Mighty One has done great things for me.
Holy is his name,
And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm,
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
He has put down the mighty from their thrones
And exalted the humble;
He has filled the hungry with good things
And the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his child Israel,
To remember his mercy,
As he spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and his posterity for ever.
In Advent, Luke's characters proclaim together with their counterparts in the rest of Scripture that all of these expectations, all of these hopes, all these divine promises, all these covenants, have met or will meet their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore Jesus of Nazareth can only truly be understood in terms of them. He is the goal of Advent. And conversely, as Advent gains its significance from everything that follows it, so the expectations, hopes, promises, and covenants have their final significance only in Jesus their climax. In Jesus, and only in Jesus, do promise and fulfillment come together.
To appreciate this affirmation, we will appeal to one negative example and one positive example from within the larger Christian tradition. Each in its own way shows Advent's power to contextualize Christology.
Getting Advent Wrong: Marcion and the Christological Coherence of the Old Testament
In the second century a strong objection came to exactly what Advent claims the continuity between Jesus' arrival and the saving work of God that laid its groundwork. Marcion was its champion, and so Marcion and his movement constitute an indirect proof of the Christological promise of Advent.
Because Marcion's theology is no longer extant, Irenaeus is our principal patristic source on Marcionism. According to Irenaeus, Marcion "taught that the God proclaimed by the Law and the Prophets is not the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the one being revealed, the other unknown; the one again begin just, the other good." Yahweh was "an evil-doer and fond of wars, and inconstant also in his judgments and contrary to himself," while Jesus came from "that Father who is above the God who made the world to do away with the Prophets and the Law and all the works of that God who made the world."28 Jesus' mission was to overthrow Yahweh.
Among the early Christians, apparently only Paul had recognized this, and even his works had been tampered with by the Judaizing enemies of the gospel. So Marcion restricted his canon to edited versions of the ten letters of Paul he knew as Pauline, and an edited version of Luke. The rest of the New Testament writings, and needless to say the entire Old Testament, he rejected.
The consequences of Marcion's theology are enormous. Yahweh is an evil god who shaped the evil primordial matter that he did not himself create. His so-called "justice" is antithetical to truly divine goodness and love. Jesus was neither conceived, nor born, but appeared (fell to earth?) at the Capernaum synagogue. His shed blood redeems human souls, but human bodies remain unsalvageable and destined to corruption.29 And needless to say, Jews who trust Yahweh's law and prophecies and worship the author of their evil are no blessing to the families of the earth. They are Christ killers.
Thanks to Marcion's skill at founding rival churches, his tradition became catholic Christianity's chief rival in the second century. But the fundamental logic of Marcionism is far greater than the political boundaries of his movement, and survives in many different forms. Marcionism soon splintered; Marcion's pupil Apelles repudiated his mentor's dualism but intensified his repudiation of the Old Testament. The Gnosticism from which it drew routinely opposed creation and salvation, the material world and the spiritual. Manichaeism, into which Marcionism seems to have been absorbed, posited a fundamental dualism between light and darkness (though it counted Israel's Prophets among the messengers of light).
It persists still. Adolf von Harnack called Marcion the first Christian reformer and the restorer of Paulinism.30 Harnack was a liberal Lutheran, a theologian in the generation that preceded the rise of National Socialism in Germany. That tradition's way of opposing Law and Gospel tolerated a caricature of Judaism as a religion of legalism and fear, and created a fatal blind spot in its reading of Paul, who is the very figure it believed to be its champion.
While Lutheranism is routinely accused of Marcionism, the more deserving recipients of that title are certain evangelical Dispensationalists who simplistically oppose Old Testament to New, law to gospel, and justice to love.31 Imprisoned in a world where God's mercy undoes God's justice, where the Son comes to save us from his Father, where holiness brings wrath rather than love, these people must make do with a compromised and cruel vocabulary of worship and witness.
Marcion's Defeat as Advent's Victory
For the latter-day Marcionites who would warp the gospel into a civil war between old and new or between God the Father and God the Son, Advent has a message: Israel was not looking forward to deliverance from its God or from its Law, but by its God and by its Law:
In days to come, the mountain of YHWH's house
Shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills;
All the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say,
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of YHWH, to the house of the God of Jacob;
That he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths."
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of YHWH from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more
(Isa. 2:2-4 NRSV, First Sunday, Year A).
Against Marcion, the Roman Church affirmed what it had known and practiced from its beginning: The God of Jesus Christ was none other than the God of Israel, the cosmic creator, who spoke through the prophets and sent his Son into the world as fulfillment of his covenant with Israel. And against the Marcionite canon, the Church formalized its own canon of four Gospels, the Pauline corpus and "catholic letters" that comprise the rest of the New Testament, and the canon of Jesus himself. Jesus was no stranger in a strange land, but God who "came to what was his own" (John 1:11). In other words, the Church emphatically affirmed the claim of Advent: Jesus was expected.
Marcionism is indirect proof that Jesus' relationship with Israel reflects his relationship with the One who sent him. For Marcion, the God who sent Jesus is not the creator god, nor the god of Israel, but the creator god's opponent. By contrast, Advent connects Jesus with the Father whose creating work he shared, and with the Holy Spirit who proclaimed him in advance and by whom he was conceived in the womb of a Jewish woman. Advent is a Trinitarian season, and the God of the Law and Prophets is the Triune God. And forsaking Advent or the Jewish institutions on which it draws amounts to forsaking the doctrine of the Trinity.
Marcion's reduction of the Christian canon reveals a connection between Advent and the Old Testament itself. The Old Testament's very name is a kind of twofold ecclesial response to Marcion, affirming the newness of Jesus' gospel by calling Israel's Tanakh "old," while simultaneously affirming the common "testamental" nature of both bodies of Scripture. Even the Old Testament's table of contents is an affirmation of Advent: Where Jews continue to group the Scriptures into Law, Prophets, and Writings (cf. Luke 24:44), the early Church came to a consensus that ordered them as Law, Writings, and Prophets.32 As a result, in the Christian canon the prophetic books lead directly into the New Testament indeed, the Protestant Old Testament's last words are Malachi's prophecy of "Elijah's" return to turn the hearts of Israel (Mal. 4:4-5). This further cements the relationship between the two testaments and escalates the tenor of messianic expectation as the Old Testament comes to its Adventist conclusion. By contrast, the center of gravity of the Tanakh remains the Law; the Jewish canon ends with the eschatological ambiguity of 2 Chron. 36:22-23's reprieve from Cyrus of Persia. The Scriptures of Jews, Christians, and Marcionites offer us no historical neutrality nor freedom from theological claims. Like the Jewish and Christian liturgical years, and like the season of Advent, they stake their claims and call for our response.
To heed the call of Israel's Scriptures (whether as Tanakh or as Old Testament) is to gain what Marcionites can never have: a past. When we are adopted into Christ (or circumcised), we are adopted into Israel. Israel's story becomes our story. So Paul can tell the mainly Gentile Christians at Corinth that "our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea" (1 Cor. 10:1). Since Jesus' arrival, Israel's fathers have become our fathers, their expectation our expectation. In Advent, we look back on their looking forward, and their looking forward becomes ours. We experience their call, enslavement, liberation, wandering, conquest, apostasy, exile, return, and apocalyptic future as our own.
Getting Advent Right: Universality and Particularity in African-American Theology
To appreciate the power of having a past as well as a future, and thereby to appreciate the power of Advent, let us finally consider a people whose past was taken away: African America.
To be African-American is to be a member of a cultural and linguistic nation (ethnos) defined in part by its West African cultural heritage, by its forcible removal from Africa and its cultural estrangement from both the cultures of its mainly white context and from its own past, by modern European concepts of race, and by shared experiences in slavery and segregation. How did this nation react to the situation imposed upon it by the mainly white nations around it?
Above all, black America retained the deep faith in a supreme God that it inherited from African religion.33 White Christians have tended to think black America's African religious heritage was entirely negative, something to be overcome in order to make way for the gospel. In fact, it was almost the opposite: The African faith in a powerful, providential creator God saw black America through its encounter with the racist gospel of white America.
However, this faith in God the creator was put under incredible stress. White supremacist theology in the nineteenth century posited that blacks were biologically inferior, because they were children of Noah's son Ham (Gen. 9:25).34 Jesus' life and teaching implicitly endorsed the Old Testament affirmation of slavery and offered a picture of how slaves and slaveholders should coexist.35 Slaves were taught from both Testaments that the God who created them had made them to be the inferior perpetual servants of God's superior white children. Quite rightly, they reacted with shock and pain, like Job had: God is still God; but can the God we worship really be a white racist?36
On these grounds, William R. Jones maintains that theodicy the problem of evil in a world created by a good God is the fundamental frame of black Christian theology.37 Its existential foundation in slavery and segregation make it profoundly different from patristic, medieval, and Reformation theology.
African America's experience of slavery generated a whole spectrum of responses, from acceptance to radical rejection. Many blacks found resources to deny that God is a white racist. Some rejected the question along with the answer, and lost their faith in God. An "Ethiopic" school of interpretation found in biblical Egypt, Ethiopia, and Cush the glorious past of African civilization, and used it to conduct its own triumphalist culture-war against the white West.38 Still others turned the slaveholders' theology on its head, literally reversing it, so that the original, unfallen humanity was black (Eden is not in Europe, after all) and that sin caused the creation of white people. White racist theology begat a black racist theology that drew equally heavily on genetic pseudoscience.39
Slaves and their descendants had been shorn of their geographic home, their ethnic heritage, and their family relationships in effect, "de-narrated" by their slaveholders. This de-narration has, ironically, become the foundation of new African-American stories:
The Muslim's "X" symbolized the true African family name that he never could know. For me, my "X" replaced the white slave-master name of `Little' which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears. Mr. Muhammad taught that we would keep this "X" until God Himself returned and gave us a Holy Name from His own mouth.40
Yet God provided the black Church much more than the story of having lost their story. As slaves and their descendants became Christians, they learned the stories in Scripture, and in them many found their own story. And when God re-narrated black America, it found itself not the children of Noah's cursed son Ham, not even the culturally superior children of Ethiopia, but the children of enslaved and liberated Israel. America was not the Promised Land after all, as the Puritans had taught. America was Egypt. God was not the god of Pharaoh, but the God of Moses, the God of the disinherited and denarrated.
Thus black America learned to see its destiny not in subjugation, but in exodus. "By identifying themselves with the Hebrews, African slaves declared themselves as insiders in the scriptural drama. While slaveholders focused on ancient Israel as a slaveholding society, the African slaves saw ancient Israel first as a nation descended from slaves."41 The promises were for them. African-American Christianity discovered the message of Advent.
The Advent message could be taken in a variety of ways. Reading the land of their ancestors as the Land of Promise (and making the same eschatological mistake as the Puritans), some freed slaves went back to Africa and founded the state of Liberia. Some looked forward to being separated from white America as the Hebrews had been, while others awaited inclusion into the greater people of God, instead seeing black America in terms of "the foreigner living in the land" (Deut. 24:18-22). Others found in sub-Saharan black America lost tribes of Israel, and saw their redemption as the fulfillment of God's promises to Moses.
All these were different answers to the question of how black America's exodus narrative fits into Israel's exodus narrative. At their heart lie differing visions of Advent: Is exodus a timeless principle of liberation, a manifesto that applies to any nation experiencing oppression? Or is it a one-time event, among whose beneficiaries one must belong in order to experience its freedom? In what sense is it universal, and in what sense is it particular to the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?
The black Americans who have continued to call on the name of Jesus Christ have found Jesus the key to their identity as the liberated children of Israel.42 Rather than splintering divine liberation into an exodus and conquest for every nation, which would simply perpetuate the cycle of violence among nations, the black Church has found its freedom in the one exodus Jesus accomplished at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). The liberation of the African-American nation, like that of all the nations, is its unearned share in the liberation of the nation of Israel.
God's inclusion of the nations, including the nation of black America, in the Advent faith of Israel gives Gentiles a history originally not their own: a remembrance of signs and wonders past and a confident expectation of signs and wonders to come. This is a blessing not just to black Americans, but to all people, whether narrated by powerful and sinful discourses, denarrated and atomized by modernity, or renarrated by postmodern acts of their own fragmented and misdirected wills. The restoration eschatology of a Nazarene Jew named Jesus, and the first-century Judaism he inherited and sent along a new trajectory, is the indispensable basis for
the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:1-5, Fourth Sunday, Year A).
5 Do these words have a human history earlier than exilic Israel, when the Pentateuch in which they are preserved took on its classical shape? My judgment is that they do, but the issue is unimportant to the argument here that Jesus is born in a context of centuries-old eschatological and messianic expectation.
6 The Catholic Daily Missal reads Luke 2:39 on Christmas Sunday, Luke 2:21 on January 1, the Octave of Christmas; and Luke 2:27 on February 2, the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
11 See principally Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985), who summarizes: "Most of the things which we know about Jesus with virtually complete certainty fit him rather neatly into the category of a prophet of Jewish restoration. [O]ur list of facts, including the behavior of the early Christians, points towards an `orthodox' eschatological movement whose peculiar characteristic is that it continued, flourished, and even followed out the natural momentum of a realized Jewish eschatological movement by admitting Gentiles" (222).
13 Ps. 80:1-7, First Sunday in Advent, Year B, Fourth Sunday, Year C; Ps. 85:8-13, Second Sunday, Year B; Ps. 122, First Sunday, Year A; Ps. 126, Second Sunday, Year C; Ps. 146:5-10, Third Sunday, Year A; Isa. 2:1-5, First Sunday, Year A; Isa. 35:1-10, Third Sunday, Year A; Isa. 63:16-64:8, First Sunday, Year B.
21 Sanders, 93: "Of primary importance for our enquiry are the simple facts that Jesus started his public career in close relationship with John the Baptist and that the Baptist was an eschatological prophet who called Israel to repent in view of the coming kingdom. If it is true that Matt. 11:11 gives Jesus' estimate of John, then we may conclude that he saw his own work as being of final significance." The Jesus Seminar attempts to explain away the relationship: "John the Baptist, not Jesus, was the chief advocate of an impending cataclysm, a view that Jesus' first disciples had acquired from the Baptist movement. Jesus himself rejected that mentality in its crass form, quit the ascetic desert, and returned to urban Galilee. He took up eating and drinking and consorting with toll collectors and sinners, and developed a different point of view, expressed in the major parables and root metaphors for God's imperial rule, as the kingdom of God has now come to be known. Jesus' followers did not grasp the subtleties of his position and reverted, once Jesus was not there to remind them, to the view they had learned from John the Baptist" (Funk et al., 4). The subtleties of public life as a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners?! Now who is explaining away Jesus' associations with John?
24 Matt. 3:1-2, Second Sunday, Year A; Mark 1:1-8, Second Sunday, Year B; Luke 3:1-6, Second Sunday, Year C; Matt. 11:2-11, Third Sunday, Year A; John 1:6-8, Third Sunday, Year B; Luke 3:7-18, Third Sunday, Year C.
31 For example, see the language the study notes use for Hebrews' comparisons of the old and the new covenants in The Life Application Bible New International Version (Wheaton: Tyndale and Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 2231. This criticism is not intended to impugn all Dispensationalists, and least of all the author of Hebrews!
42 Evans, 77-79. His treatment of figural interpretation sees Jesus' significance as the typological fulfillment of Adam, Moses, and Joshua. The fact that he does not mention Abraham the patriarch or King David, figures so stressed in Constantinian Christianity, suggests the distinctives of the black Church's eschatology.