The Light's Winning
We sin because God has hidden himself
Tamed Cynic is a reader-supported publication. If you appreciate the work, consider joining the posse of paid subscribers!
The Old Testament lectionary text for the first Sunday of Advent is Isaiah 64.1-9:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
Every year Advent begins in the dark.
Every year Advent begins with John the Baptist wailing in the wilderness about the imminent winnowing fork of God’s wrath, “You brood of vipers!” John the Baptist always kicks off the most wonderful time of the year, “Even now the ax is at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire!”
Every year Advent begins with Jesus of Nazareth preaching apocalyptically about the end times:
”In those days…the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,” Jesus preaches every Advent, “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory…about that day or hour no one knows…Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake--for you do not know when the Master of the house will come.”
And every year Advent begins with prophets like Isaiah forsaking any hope that we can improve our situation and pleading to the God who appears to be absent in our world.
This year is no exception.
Every year Advent begins in the dark.
Here’s an Advent story—
Zachary Koehn is the now thirty-year-old father who was found guilty of murder by an Iowa jury. after less than an hour of deliberation. His four-month-old son, Sterling, had been found dead in a motorized swing. Sterling’s father, Zachary Koehn, was convicted of first-degree murder and child endangerment causing death. On Aug. 30, 2017, authorities arrived at the home of Zachary Koehn and twenty-one-year-old Cheyanne Harris where they discovered the lifeless body of their son, Sterling Koehn, in the swing. Autopsy results report that medical examiners found “maggots in various stages of development” in the boy’s “clothing and on his skin.” The baby, who weighed less than five pounds at death, was left in the baby swing for over a week. He was not bathed or changed that entire time. The county sheriff told jurors he found maggots and larva when the medical examiner began to remove the layers of urine-soaked blankets and clothing from the child.
The prosecutor distilled the shock in his opening statement:
“He died of diaper rash.”
"O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” laments the prophet Isaiah.
The Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs argues in his commentary on the Book of Isaiah that this communal complaint in chapter sixty-four is not original to Isaiah, but rather is a Psalm of lament that predates Isaiah.
The prophet borrows from this preexisting corporate lament, Childs suggests, in order to speak to Israel’s despair and hopelessness as exiles in an evil and unrighteous world.
In other words, this collective, rage-filled indictment leveled at the state of the world and our complicity with it is not original to Isaiah’s time and place, but is an indictment relevant to every time and place— and will continue to be so until the Lord does, indeed, tear open the heavens and come again to judge the quick and the dead.
Advent is the season of the second coming.
You heard that right— Advent is the season of the second coming.
Don’t let the decorations fool you.
In Advent, we do not— as popularly misunderstood— prepare ourselves for the rehearsal of Christ’s first coming.
No, in Advent we rehearse the righteous rage of the prophets who augured Christ’s first coming in order to long for his promised coming again.
We are waiting in Advent not for the eve of his arrival to Mary and Joseph. We are waiting for his return “in great power and glory.” Advent is not the season when we anticipate his first coming. Advent is the season when we anticipate his coming again.
This is why the Church in the Middles Ages spent the Sundays of Advent reflecting upon the four last things (Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell).
Advent is the season of the second coming.
Don’t take my word for it. Consider the Advent hymns:
Sleepers, wake!” The watch cry pealeth,
While slumber deep each eyelid sealeth:
Awake, Jerusalem, awake!
Midnight’s solemn hour is tolling,
And seraph-notes are onward rolling;
They call on us our part to take.
Come forth, ye virgins wise:
The Bridegroom comes, arise!
Alleluia! Each lamp be bright with ready light
To grace the marriage feast tonight.
— “Sleepers, Wake!”
Lo! he comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of his train:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
God appears, on earth to reign.
Every eye shall now behold him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at nought and sold him,
Pierced and nailed him to the tree,
Shall the true Messiah see.
Yea, Amen! let all adore thee,
High on thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory:
Claim the kingdom for thine own:
O come quickly!
Alleluia! Come, Lord, come!
— “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending”
The Sundays of Advent run backwards, the movement of the season is from the second coming to the first coming, starting with the eschaton and concluding with the incarnation.
This makes Advent unlike all the other seasons of the liturgical year. Whereas, the every other feast day of the church year— Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost— celebrate the mighty acts of God in history, Advent looks beyond history altogether and awaits the return of Christ our Lord.
That Advent— as scripture does— beckons us to look for redemption from beyond another sphere entirely is a frank and sober assessment of our human situation.
Advent points us beyond history so that we might recognize that human progress is a deception.
Or, as St. Gregory of Nyssa summarizes the takeaway of Advent:
“Any apparent progress forward in history is really, underneath it all, nothing more than the futile washing in and washing out of waves on a beach.”
The season of the second coming points us beyond history in order to compel us into the acknowledgment that “nothing that is possible can save us.” During Advent, therefore, we do not pretend— as many believe— that we are in the darkness before the birth of Christ. Rather, during Advent, we take a good hard look at the darkness we are in now, facing it and naming it honestly, so that we will understand with utmost clarity that our great and only hope is in Christ’s final, victorious return.
This is why we do not mark Advent with the color of Christmas— white— but with the same purple paraments that accompany us to Good Friday.
To grasp the scope of God’s great redemptive work in Jesus Christ— a work whose completion we still await— we must plumb the depths of the human predicament.
Otherwise our faith is nothing more than sentimentality, and the promise of the Gospel is not a comfort, but a shallow idea.
Grace is not amazing until you have apprehended the wretchedness of our state.
The philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensees, “God being thus hidden, every religion which does not affirm that God is hidden, is not true; and every religion which does not give the reason of it, is not instructive. Our religion does all this: Vere tu Deus absconditus.”
“Truly, you are a God who hidest thyself.”
We need look no further than Advent to establish the truth of Christianity on Pascal’s terms. Even the prophet Isaiah today reverses the typical understanding of the problem of sin.