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Advent’s Path Travels the Longer View of History

The Advent season of anticipation invites us to see four common features of our human experience through a deeper and longer lens.

Hope becomes more than an optimistic expectation of good circumstances and is rooted in a deeper trust in the one who promises to be “with us” in all circumstances.

Peace becomes more than the absence of conflict and is the quality of “restored wholeness” for individuals and communities that we find in the concept of shalom.

Joy becomes more than the glee of happiness and is the deeply rooted sense of alignment with glimpses of eternity that remind us of the sacred that is inherent in all of life.

And love – the mystery that creates, restores and nourishes all of life – becomes more than attraction and sentiment and is the commitment to embrace the “imago Dei” that reaches outward toward community rather than inward toward self-centeredness.

In this season, we are encouraged to move beyond the first levels of these ordinary features of life – hope, peace, joy and love – to a deeper level of understanding them. It would probably be good to do that more than once a year.

Advent ushers in not so much the arrival of extraordinary things, but a new way of seeing what have been ordinary things – the “coming” of a new sense of a presence that has been here all along.

But there is another feature of Advent that bears reflection as we prepare to affirm and celebrate the disclosure of God’s presence in life marked by Christmas.

In their book, “The First Christmas,” Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan draw a parallel (and a significant and even subversive contrast) between the expectation of salvation that was present in the Roman Empire and what the early Christians found and articulated in their response to their experience with Jesus.

The prevalent ideology – indeed theology – of the empire sought peace by means of conquest – victory over opposition and enforced “peace” by military power. Divinity was ascribed to the emperor who brought this about.

Octavian, adopted nephew of Julius Caesar, was titled Augustus (“divine one”) and was described by such titles as Son of God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator and Savior of the world.

This establishment of “peace on earth” and the means by which it is attained and maintained stands in marked contrast to the “peace on earth” reflected in the gospels’ portraits of a different kind of kingdom and a different kind of redeemer.

Contrasting the imagery of a servant messiah and the peace of shalom to that of a victorious Caesar and the Pax Romana, the gospel narratives portray a transformation that results from a way of life that reflects a different divine agenda from that of victory over one’s enemies.

Borg and Crossan speak of the difference between peace through victory and peace through justice to point out the contrast between the common wisdom of the time of Jesus and the radical alternative that was offered by the Christian story.

Advent is the season of preparation to hear again this radical alternative to what has tended to be the “normal” expectation of deliverance from whatever circumstance or peril affects any age.

In contrast to the appeal of a powerful elimination of whatever is seen to be the “problem,” and the establishment of a new and better world (community, nation, church and so on), we are offered a life that reflects openness to what God can and does do in the transformation of the human family “from the inside out.”

Without arguing the essential necessity of structures represented by empires large and small, ancient and modern, we can observe that there is a different view of history in the empire’s agenda to “fix it and make it great” and the covenant community’s “transform it and make it good.”

One seems to be focused on short-term greatness and domination, while the other seems to be focused on long-term goodness and community.

Advent seems to be inviting us to this longer view of history, accompanied by a reminder that empires tend not to last, while covenant communities based on values different from victory and conquest tend to survive and bear witness to the eternal qualities of love and justice.

As in the world of the first Advent, we continue to live in both worlds: the world of empire and the world of covenant community, with the two views of history on the table before us.

The question is this: In terms of which one do we see the other?

We are seeing in many areas of our contemporary life what a difference that choice can make.

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.