Enduring this past month’s news cycle calls to mind the observation by Reinhold Neibuhr, that “the doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.”
But the Christian faith does not dwell on this doctrine forever, merely pointing out sin and proclaiming hopelessness from on high. Every year, as surely as December follows November, November gives way to Advent.
Most years, including this one, the last Sunday of November is the first Sunday of Advent, and for the next four weeks Christians will wait to celebrate Christmas and remember the birth of Jesus. Advent comes from the Latin adventus or “coming.” It is the church’s liturgical season of waiting, hoping, and preparing for coming of the One who will make it all right. Christians and Jews have much in common, and this is one of them: We wait together for the Messiah.
Speaking to an ecumenical gathering including hundreds of Christians, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once said, “All of us believe in the Messiah. Except you think that He has come already and will come again. We Jews believe He hasn't come yet. So I propose to you: Let's wait together and when He does come we shall simply ask Him, ‘Have You been here before?’'' Buber went on to say he hoped to be close enough to the Messiah to whisper “Don’t answer!”
Indeed, Christians believe the Messiah has come once, and by observing Advent each year, in the words of the Catholic Catechism, the church “makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior's first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming.”
Christians marking Advent through December look back to the birth of Jesus, of course, but they are also looking forward to the coming of Jesus, “a light shining in the darkness” again. Unlike original sin, this doctrine of the Christian faith is less empirically verifiable. It is a matter of exactly that, of faith.
This faith is a profound source of hope for its adherents, a hope that burns even more brightly in dark seasons. Regardless of what’s going on in the news, we believe that sex scandals, selfishness, violence, and greed are not the end of the story. For these four weeks of Advent, Christians focus our attention on Jesus who taught against such things, modeled an entirely different way of life, and calls all people in Bono’s words, “to tear a little corner off the darkness”. During Advent we ponder Jesus once again, and wait for him, and redouble our efforts to be like him in this current season and news cycle when light is such a needed, and welcome, contrast.
The Rev. Bill Haley is the Associate Rector at
The Falls Church and Director of Formation at
The Washington Institute.
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