As I have gotten older, I have shifted one hundred eighty degrees in my attitude toward the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent. For many years the prospect of several weeks spent dwelling on matters of sin and repentance struck me as akin to taking very bad-tasting medicine as a child: necessary perhaps for spiritual health, but not the kind of thing one looks forward to.
These days however I find myself grateful that my home congregation is willing to linger over the Advent texts and disciplines and not rush too quickly into Christmas. The turnaround for me has come about as I have been struck with a common but under-appreciated feature of the Christmas message: God sent to us a Savior.
I think about all the different ways God could have reached out to our world: God could have sent someone whose primary mission was to be a teacher to offer us guidance and instruction. God could have sent a life-coach to inspire and direct us, or a sage to provide spiritual wisdom and insight, or a counselor to help us distinguish clearly the times we’ve gotten things right from those episodes when we have strayed from the path. Jesus helps us with all those things, of course, but they are not what the angels proclaim. The emphasis of the Christmas message lies elsewhere.
God sends us a Savior…why? Evidently because we needed saving. The implications of that run deeper than we’re comfortable with sometimes. Admitting that we are the sort of people who need saving is a radical step.
People who need the occasional mid-course correction might benefit from an instructor or a coach, but they surely don’t need a Savior. Neither do people who simply require the occasional reminder to live the way they should, or those whose lives get a little ragged around the edges and need to be re-centered.
No, one sends a Savior to people who are without hope. Saviors are for the really unfortunate persons who face challenges and difficulties that are simply too big for them to deal with on their own. Saviors are needed for people who completely lack the resources to meet the challenges at hand, the hopeless cases who would be completely lost if left to their own devices. Could God really be thinking of us in that way, even now, after all these years of trying so hard to be good disciples?
For me Advent has become, along with Lent, a time for reflecting on why I would need a Savior. This spiritual discipline collides head-on with my own pretensions: I have the sense of having done a pretty fair job of being a Christian and a decent human being, though like everyone I’ve experienced the occasional slip-up around the margins, which I will address in the coming year by buckling down and trying harder. In the face of my spiritual complacency, Advent comes like a bucket of ice water to the face, reminding me that God still considers me a hopeless case—someone who needs a Savior! It’s jarring to contemplate.
Surprisingly, though, I find this reminder, as unsettling as it is, can also become the occasion of joy. The assertion that I am one who needs saving leads me to reflect on all those aspects of my life and world that really are beyond my capacity to deal with. This Advent I have been thinking about the disruptive economic forces that have sent nations and families and businesses careening like tiny boats on a storm-tossed sea, and that so far seem resistant to anyone’s efforts to tame them. The anxiety which follows close on the heels of these reflections provides an unsettling insight into how much my own sense of confidence and hope for the future is tied up with financial security and material prosperity.
I have also found myself thinking about mortality. Though blessed with relatively good health, at age 53 I find the sense of life’s finite limits becoming increasingly vivid. There just isn’t the sense anymore of a limitless expanse of time stretching out before me for the embracing what life has to offer. An end is coming, bringing with it heaven knows what in the way of grief and suffering, and while a healthy lifestyle can perhaps postpone it for awhile, in the end there’s nothing I or anyone can do to keep it from coming.
Such reflections by themselves would be terribly depressing, but in the context of Advent they serve to highlight the stunning import of the Christmas message: God sent a Savior. All the situations we identify as hopeless are not so. He came as light in the darkness, and he is coming again in glory to make all things new. None of the forces bigger than ourselves has ultimate power over us.
What would it look like for us to start living more from the truth of that? I think the repentance to which Advent calls us is first and foremost about learning to live fully in the light of what God has done, allowing God’s gift to banish our hopelessness and the destructive anxiety which follows so closely on its heels. What does it feel like when God’s gift of a Savior starts to overcome our fear of all the earthly powers and forces and situations we assumed had control over us? Such liberation, I suspect, may have us singing along with the angels before we know it!
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” May God grant all of us grace this Advent to enter more deeply into this astonishing news!
Mark Achtemeier teaches Theology and Ethics at Dubuque Theological Seminary.