This past Sunday, December 1, was the first Sunday of the Western Christian tradition of Advent.* My experience with the season of Advent is limited to more recent years of worshiping at churches with “mainline” denominational influence. Friends who worship in non-denominational settings are often less familiar with Advent and may not observe the tradition.
No matter our traditions, as a minimum most of us understand Advent to be a time of looking forward to and anticipating the birth of Christ. But how do we anticipate something that took place a couple thousand years ago? (This is the type of question typical of young people trying to reconcile tradition and present reality.) Therefore, it might be helpful to examine Advent in order to gain a better understanding the season and its value.
The dictionary defines “advent” as the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event (as in “the advent of cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies?”). The “Advent” of the Christian calendar is derived from the Latin word adventus which means “coming, arrival, or visit.” Scholars think adventus is a translation of the Greek word parousia. Parousia is a word that is usually connected to the second coming of Christ. At the Care Center where my mom resides, the Eucharist is celebrated during weekly chapel, administered by an Anglican priest. The Anglican words of institution are, “Christ has died, Christ is risen; Christ will come again. Parousia.
But this is the 21st century. How was parousia used a couple thousand years ago in the days leading up to Jesus’ birth? The Jewish historian, Josephus, sometimes used parousia when speaking of YHWH coming to rescue Israel. For many years prior to Jesus’ birth, the Israelites had been longing for YHWH’s intervention as they suffered under the domination of other empires, this time under Roman dominance. He was their hope – their scriptures (our Old Testament) were laced with longing and hope (some examples: Psalm 25, Psalm 42, Psalm 130, Isaiah 40, Lamentations 3).
Josephus wrote his Jewish history in Greek and thus the usage of parousia. However, Greek was not the language of the Israelites. Their scriptures were written in Hebrew. So, what did parousia mean in a non-Jewish, non-religious context? The term was used when a high ranking official made a visit to a subject state. If Queen Elizabeth were to visit that Falkland Islands, a British territory, the Falkland inhabitants would experience royal presence. The ancient Greek word for royal presence is parousia.
God must be frustrated with Christmas songs that sanitize and domesticate Jesus’ birth. I think of Away in the Manger, depicting a cute little, perfect baby who doesn’t even cry. What the shepherds witnessed that night in the manger was royal presence, parousia. And to be sure parousia had political implications! Emperors are usually not open to sharing their kingdom with others. The significance of parousia was not lost on the puppet king, Herod. When he discovered the possible whereabouts of the baby Jesus, he dispatched troops to slaughter baby boys, hoping to snuff out a potential rival.
We must remember that Christ has died and Christ has risen. And though we certainly look forward to a second coming, we don’t want to forget that he is alive and well on planet earth. The message of the early believers was that Jesus is King and Caesar is not. The message today is that Jesus is King and _________ is not (fill in the blank). We are blessed with royal presence. May we not take for granted parousia. May we learn to live as people in the presence of royalty! **
* The tradition of Eastern Orthodox Christians is the celebration of the 40-day Nativity Fast as they prepare for Christmas.
** Old Christmas hymn writers understood this. We can see references to the birth of a king in many of the familiar carols (e.g., Joy to the World, O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear).