A Gift of Himself
A personal reflection on hearing the Good News in Advent by Teresa McCaffery
Christmas is a time for traditions. The presents, the parties, the decorations, the nativity plays and Christmas cribs, the carol services, traditional food at traditional meals, the traditional walk after lunch and all the other things that families do together at Christmas, lovely though each one is, can add up to a burden on body and pocket. Some people, living in religious houses and communities, will be free simply to ignore all of this, others develop new traditions which are more Gospel friendly; they buy their presents from the SCIAF or CAFOD catalogue and arrange to attend midnight Mass at a local convent, they may even repair to a retreat centre for the duration. But I suspect that most of us do not have these options; and besides, we want to give our families and friends something to show we think them special, and we need a celebration to lighten the winter gloom. The answer surely is to remember that it is not what you do that matters, but why and how you do it.
Christmas is about the beginning of the Gospel just as Easter celebrates its climax and completion. The preparation we do in Advent is different from how we prepare for Easter.
The Good News
Scripture scholars now teach that the Gospel, the good news about the love of God, came to us in three stages. This is how I understand them:
A nation populated by people who have a strong relationship to God has suffered repeated episodes of oppression and exile. They are currently under the heel of the Romans. They know that their sufferings are connected to failure to keep the law of God but seem incapable of sticking to the rules for any length of time. Their belief system includes the possibility that God will send a Messiah to rescue them from this miserable cycle.
Into this situation a man called Jesus appears. He is nobody special, just a local carpenter, but he soon becomes the talk of the town. His effect on the people he encounters is electrifying; sickness and evil take flight at the sight of him. His teaching is both challenging and exhilarating: he speaks of healing and forgiveness, of the love of God. People who experience this love through Jesus drop their sinfulness like a discarded garment. They wonder if Jesus might even be the longed-for Messiah and start to dream of being freed from the oppression of the Romans.
He is executed as a criminal. Sadness and disappointment reign supreme.
And then something else happens; too wonderful to describe accurately it puts the despairing disciples back on their feet. They gather with inner strength determined to tell the whole world the truth about God brought by Jesus. The first way we learn the Good News is through the presence of Jesus in our midst. He is the Gospel. The messenger is the message.
The Gospel Spreads
The disciples who followed Jesus have become Apostles, dedicated to teaching. They travel well beyond Palestine setting up new communities. These are left to develop on their own, guided by letters which convey the results of deep thought and prayer and community debate. The apostles know that the message is more than the people who teach it, but also that they have a creative responsibility for it. They must still try, albeit imperfectly, to be the message as well as teaching it. Coming into communities that do not have the background knowledge of Hebrew scriptures they must find new moral standards and new ways of deepening the people’s understanding of what God is, and what He is not based on what these people know and hold dear. They choose not to apply the Hebrew rulebook to pagan converts.
The new disciples become apostles in their turn, working out how to apply this teaching in new communities as Christianity spreads outwards.
This is the apostolic gospel and it focusses on the divinity of Jesus Christ, His acceptance of all people, not just the originally chosen race, as children of God, not slaves to the demands of our wishes and needs. The love of God, they teach, is expressed in the form of healing and forgiveness; those who sin are there to be rescued.
A written statement
The geographical spread of the communities and the passage of time stretched the social connections of Christians to the limit. It became necessary to create a written statement to act as a reference point so that applications of the message to local conditions would not inadvertently alter or confuse the intrinsic truth of the Gospel. Because the Gospel message had already been elaborated to match the needs of different new contexts four texts were chosen. They offered a full summary of the depth and detail of all that happened during those three eventful years, together with the first efforts to situate these events in the wider context of world history. These written texts, called the four Gospels, are both source of new inspiration and reference point to check against any suspected departure from truth.
These four, together with the Old testament and writings from the early church make up the scriptural (written) reference text. Added to this we have two thousand years’ worth of teaching application. Liturgy, devotions and stories of saints make up that huge repertoire of celebration of the goodness of God which we call tradition, the last form of the Gospel.
Today, most of us meet the Gospel in its traditional form, with the infancy narratives taking centre stage.
These stories went into the written texts to make the theology clearer and set Jesus in His historical context. Given their dramatic nature it is not surprising that a tradition of Christmas plays, and nativity scenes grew up. These celebrations marvellously present the significance of Jesus as both human child and Son of God, but they do not tell us what it felt like to be living in Palestine at the time Jesus was about. For this we need to do a bit of imaginative time traveling.
We need to learn to wait for salvation
It is not difficult to know how the people of Israel felt as they endured the ups and downs of their history. Any news broadcast will remind us forcibly of the failings of mankind and the misery that results. During Advent we can contemplate these miseries without dashing off to ‘do something about it’. We acknowledge that, as the saying goes, ‘it is what it is’. We cry ‘Maranatha’ and pray ‘Come Lord Jesus’ as we look on helplessly at all the things that are going wrong. We need to come slowly to terms with the fact that the troubles of this world will not be solved by a political campaign or some energetic fundraising. We need to learn to wait for salvation as the Israelites waited for their Messiah; saving us from ourselves is not something we can do.
If we work hard during Advent to develop this sense of helplessness in the face of our sinfulness, we may be in the right frame of mind to feel what those who met Jesus for the first time, and not through hearsay, felt.
Imagine you are at the Jordan listening to John the Baptist and resolving to try, yet again, to mend your ways when John points behind you and says, “That’s the man to follow!”. You turn, and ask him where he lives…
Or, maybe you are in the synagogue listening to the Scriptures being read. You hear the wonderful prophecy of Isiah and wonder how long you must wait for its fulfilment when you hear a voice say, “This prophecy is being fulfilled today” …
Perhaps you are at a wedding, where all are full of joy and happiness, until the wine runs out. Suddenly there is gallons of the stuff, and good quality too. You wonder what that means…
We give gifts at Christmas because God made us a gift of Himself. At Christmas, salvation looks like a parcel under the tree, beautifully wrapped but not revealing its content. If we have worked hard enough during Advent to acknowledge the fact that we can’t fix the world through our own efforts, we can cry out in gratitude at Christmas that God’s gift is with us. Later, we will learn, with the help of the Spirit and diligent study of scripture, tradition and the signs of the times, what our personal contribution could be to the salvation of the world. At Christmas, we should simply thank God for His wonderful present.