Advent is a special season of welcoming the Lord Jesus Christ as our Immanuel, the “With-Us-God” (Dale Bruner), the Incarnate Word and the Savior of the world. The events of Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 are part of our Advent Sundays and the days culminating in Epiphany on January 6. (Our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers operate on a different calendar and share in same celebrations and few days later). Angels and Shepherds, Magi and jealous rulers frame the divine invasion, as our Lord becomes forever one of us.
As late winter and spring approach, we enter the Lenten Season. These days of prayer and fasting, self-denial and service are in preparation for the Passion of our Lord. Jesus’ atoning death on the Cross and triumphal resurrection are the heart of the Christian message (I Cor. 15) and believers of every tradition are right to regard this season as the most important of the Church year. Ascension and Pentecost Sundays will follow Easter, completing the fullness of the divine provision for human sin and consequent invitation for the liberated and empowered church to participate in the Missio Dei.
Christian thinkers have observed that the New Testament foci are the kingdom words and works of Jesus, culminating with the Cross. Salvation is not reduced to a new set of rabbinical precepts, but in repentance and faith arising from hearing and believing the message of Christ crucified and risen and decisively reorienting life toward humility and service of the One who would rather die than live without us (2 Cor. 5:16-17; Hebrews 12:1-3).
Advent and Lent are the crucial seasons that secure our salvation, recalibrate our identity and focus our mission.
What about our “ordinary” life “in-between” these seasons? The Bible is almost silent on the human life of Jesus between the Incarnation and his public mission over 30 years later. We have a few tantalizing hints in the New Testament. We have scores of apocryphal narratives in the more than 50 pseudo-gospels and collections that accumulated from the second to the ninth century to fulfill our curiosity. While we rightly eschew such fictions, we can also be derailed from arguments arising from biblical silence. We must wisely navigate between the rocks of legendary accretions and the shoals of undue speculation.
Happily for us, the vignettes offered in Luke’s gospel and the Book of Hebrews are insightful for our identity, mission and perspective as we aim to live the future now in the power of the Spirit; The human experiences of our Lord are instructive as we cultivate fidelity each day. Here are some thoughts for our journey as we live “in between” Advent and Lent, promise and fulfillment, beginnings and endings:
The Temple Narrative of Luke 2: Jesus is now an adult member of the Jewish community, freely engaging the rabbis and scholars. At the age of twelve, Jesus knows that his relationship with Yahweh is particularly intimate. His matter-of-fact response to his parents represents his maturity as a young man and particular awareness of his unique identity.
At home with the parents: Luke’s final window into the pre-public life of Jesus tells us Jesus was neither anonymous nor famous, but a maturing, thoughtful and well-respected person in his local community.
Life in between moments of destiny or quantum change (Thomas Kuhn) consists of daily decisions and habits of the heart (Bellah) that create character and foster integrity. One of my mentors, the late Campbell McAlpine, once commented, “You will have many more crises of obedience than guidance.” Responsiveness to the clear commands of Scripture (Ps. 119) and learning to “Keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25-26) are the foundation for receiving further understanding of God’s specific plans and enduring the sufferings that are the normal lot of faithful servants of the kingdom of God.
The early chapters of the Book of Hebrews offer the other windows into the life of our Lord between Advent and Lent. This Epistle of encouragement was written for believers under pressure to abjure their faith and settle for the comfortable furrows of religious tradition that had no place for the new covenant established by Christ. The author (My favorite possibilities are Priscilla and Barnabas, with Luke as an alternate, but I digress…) focuses on Jesus as the decisive and final revelation of God’s character, nature and saving activity (Hebrews 1, 13). In the midst of profound explanations of the new covenant and the completion Christ brings to all prior revelation, there is a clear message that Jesus’ human experience is the paradigm for our own.
Hebrews 2:5-9: The dignity of humankind and humanity of our Lord: God’s love and respect for women and men is in view as our glory and need of grace are explained. We are crowned with glory and honor (Ps. 8) and in need of Jesus tasting death for us as one of us (Anselm’s great insight in Cur Deus Homo – Why God Became Man).
Hebrews 2:10-18 and 4:15-16: Suffering, salvation and glory: On his way to his final and fully sufficient sacrificial death on the cross (Heb. 5-11), Jesus is “perfected” through his sufferings. How can a sinless Savior grow? Here we have an important insight into the nature of our maturity: character develops through challenge and maturity is more than innocence. Jesus experienced normal human development and the full range of joys and sorrows, temptations and tests that come to all of us. His atoning death is the culmination of decades of development.
We have a Lord happily calling his followers siblings and willingly embracing the limits and trials of real-time existence in order to secure our obedient response to his love. The One we pray through and to “gets it” for he has experienced human life with all its attendant choices and passions.
These two passages reinforce the Luke’s insights concerning the will of God for our ordinary life: God cares more about character than public accomplishment. Indeed, it is the “painful acquisition of virtue” (T. Szasz) arising from responsive love that is the mark of the Christian (John 13:34-35).
Hebrews 5:7-10: Jesus’ experiences and ours: Our Lord suffered greatly in his Passion, from Gethsemane’s submission to the final agony of physical and spiritual torment on the Cross. Our salvation rests on the decisive provision of his representative and substitutionary suffering (Rom. 3:21-31; Heb. 7, 10). In this passage of Hebrews, the author opens our eyes to the lifetime of preparation that preceded the Passion. We have a Lord that cried out in prayer and was heard on high. We have a Savior learning personal obedience under pressure. Once again, we find a Lord who can empathize with our agonies and ecstasies.
From all our NT authors, we discover that our life in Christ is an anticipation of the future as we live in love (Matt. 22:37-40), experience (partially) the righteousness, peace and joy in the Spirit in our communities (Rom. 14:17) and become more like the One we behold (2 Cor. 3:17-18). All of this takes place in concreteness of our daily life as we play and work, endure unjust suffering, experience the consequences of others’ and our decisions and develop character though our responses to circumstances.
Luke and the author of the Book of Hebrews help us in our journey as they offer portraits of a Lord in love with us, fully one of us and willing to stand with us as we live into our destiny. The good works specifically designed for us (Eph.2:10) are only discovered and done in a context of humility and spiritual ears attuned through learning.
Life between Advent and Lent is not “ordinary” at all. Every day moves us toward depravity or dignity, character transformation and/or divine discipline. Our Lord Jesus experienced every stage of development, from infancy to adulthood. He was tempted in all areas, yet without sin. He is the author or pioneer – the trailblazer – and the One who will help us finish our journey of salvation.
As we finish Advent and prepare for Lent, let’s embrace the will of God revealed in Scripture and offered in our communities. Let’s allow Jesus’ exemplary life and extraordinary grace into our daily rhythms. We will then discover there is nothing ordinary about our Christian life!