Advent is a season that Adventists should love—it is part of our name, after all! It is a season of four weeks preceding the celebration of the birth of Jesus; it prepares us to welcome him at his first advent, while also anticipating his second advent. The scripture readings used in churches of many denominations have this dual focus, as do the hymns. We hear the promises of the Old Testament, and the call of John the Baptist to prepare, and the angelic messages to Mary and to Joseph. Hymns urge “Sleepers, wake!” and “Prepare the royal highway, the King of kings is near!”
Advent prepares for Christmas, but holds it at a distance. Calendars count down the days, while the Advent wreath counts the four weeks, as anticipation builds. But Christmas is not yet—so the baby does not lie in the manger, and Christmas carols are not sung. “Silent Night” may be playing in malls and coffee houses in mid-November, but won’t be sung in a great many churches until December 24, when Christmas begins. And when Christmas comes, the celebration will last for 12 days, until Epiphany, January 6. Advent says it is coming, but it is not here yet—and we use the time not in premature celebration, but to prepare our hearts.
In the Scriptures and songs of Advent, Mary figures prominently. She, after all, was the one to whom the good news first came. She was the one who held the Promise within her in bodily form for nine months. She was the preacher who first brought forth the Word to our world. But Mary is a difficult figure for Protestants to contemplate—no doubt in reaction to what we see as Catholicism’s over-emphasis. Ellen White is a typical evangelical in this regard. She says very little about Mary in The Desire of Ages. There is no Annunciation and no Visitation in her account. We meet Mary and Joseph on the road to Bethlehem.
And yet Luke’s account begins long before then, with angelic messages to Zachariah and to Mary. Luke gives us both the Annunciation and the Visitation, and both Catholics and Protestants have mined these stories for treasures of meaning over the centuries. Typical are some of the reflections that Roland Bainton gathered for his Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, first published in 1948.
Luther helped make these stories come alive for me. For many today, I think, the story of Christmas is merely a tale of history, told of something that happened back then. Oh, we like to hear it. It’s a moving story, a story full of meaning, a story of something important that happened two thousand years ago. I suggest we need to learn to read the story so that it speaks to us, now. And that’s what Luther invites us to.
In his reflections on the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), Luther notes Bernard of Clairvaux’s observation that this story tells of three miracles, not one. First, that God and man could be united in this promised Child. Second, that a virgin could be a mother. And the third and greatest miracle--that Mary should believe it.[i] Imagine yourself in her shoes. Maybe 14 years old. Not quite sure even of what transpires between a husband and wife. And now told that she would be a mother. And she believes. Did she doubt, even for a moment? It doesn’t appear so. Contrast her with Joseph. It took a vision to convince him that she hadn't been out behind the barn with some young man--or Roman soldier. Not Mary. She heard, and she believed.
Martin Luther said of this, "Had she not believed, she could not have conceived." But "she held fast to the word of the angel because she had become a new creature."[ii] God's Word had made her this. And so must we, too, be transformed by the Word, day by day, that we might believe, and that we might cling in faith to God's Word, in spite of what our experience and our feelings might say.
And believe what? Believe what Isaiah prophesied: "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given." It's easy enough, Luther says, to believe that Jesus is the son of the Virgin and the Son of God. It's much harder "to believe that this Son of God is ours."[iii] To put ourselves in the position of Mary, and to hear and to believe the promise that Christ is come to us. That is the incredible news promised to Mary and to us alike--that Christ comes for you, for me; to be, truly, God with us.
"Truly it is marvelous in our eyes that God should place a little child in the lap of a virgin and that all our blessedness should lie in him. And this Child belongs to all mankind. God feeds the whole world through a Babe nursing at Mary’s breast. This must be our daily exercise: to be transformed into Christ, being nourished by this food. Then will the heart be suffused with all joy and will be strong and confident against every assault."[iv]
Notes & References:
[i] Roland Bainton, ed. Martin Luther’s Christmas Book (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1948), p. 15.
[iii] Ibid., p. 16.
Bill Cork is pastor of the North Houston and Spring Creek Seventh-day Adventist churches in Texas, and is a chaplain in the Texas Army National Guard.