Advent is the time on the Christian calendar for expectancy. We anticipate Christmas during the season of Advent. There are many other consistent expectations. We can expect a lot of innocuous yet enjoyable stuff: multi-colored and flashing lights, a barrage of holiday sales, Santa’s in malls, radio programs going 24/7 with Christmas songs, nostalgia, cold and snowy weather—all stuff I really like myself. We can also expect the not-so-innocuous: the typical squabbling over politically correct phrases like “Merry Christmas or happy holidays,” the desperation of some Christian circles for the wider culture to affirm them by bemoaning the fact that Christmas gets less and less cultural and government sanction every year. We can expect these same pious faultfinders to chastise the culture for not really celebrating the “reason for the season,” even as these same critics themselves get swallowed up in the materialism they mean to diminish, as if the Christian answer to materialism is really glorified immaterialism. And watch out if, like 2005, Christmas falls on a Lord’s Day.
But instead of being distracted by the cacophony of irrelevance, I would suggest we might do better to consider Mary’s Magnificat. To many Protestant ears it might sound dangerously close to a Romish fascination with the Madonna. That might explain so many befuddled Protestant looks when the term is brought up and the subsequent race back to the assortment of things in the first paragraph. But it is far from hands-off Romanism. The Magnificat is named from the first word in Jerome’s Latin version, “magnifies,” or “my soul magnifies” in the aorist Greek tense. Upon hearing the news that she will bear the Son of God, Mary is basically bursting with anticipation and says it all with, “As the LORD has spoken, may it be!” Mary is the second to the last Scriptural figure who points us to Christ (John the Baptist being the last). After some 400 years of silence by God, He comes to Mary through the angel of the LORD to make His announcement–by way of paraphrasing the last prophet to speak, Micah–that she is to be the human conduit to bring forth the Light of the world. He would be the long awaited Messiah Who would take away the sin of the world. Fallen creation would be redeemed from its corruption by the Last Adam brought upon it by the sin of the first. He would be the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets and save His people—and Mary will be His mother.
That is quite a grand and soaring set of themes. Anymore though, instead of pointing us to Christ, messages seem designed to point us instead to ourselves. Instead of stirring the pots of Old Testament anticipation of the promised Messiah and how they seem to approach culmination in the person of Mary in a way they cannot in any other person, we may well get another lecture and lesson on how to generally “submit ourselves to God’s will for our lives and trust God just like Mary did”—a sort of Advent-light. Like a bad penny, this is one of the least favored expectancies to me. It takes the wind right out of the Scriptural sails. It wouldn’t bother me so much if this sort of thing were the exception rather than the rule. But I find that is not the case. It could be said that throughout the year we get Bible characters presented to us as models and heroes. Reading the Bible the way we do Aesop’s Fables, we end up with a sort of glorified litany of moral or spiritual imperatives. Thus, we may hardly blink when Mary is yet another figure used to give us some nice advice about trusting God for any array of temporal concerns.
This message flows from what some call the “Application-Bridge” model of modern interpretation, which is contrasted to the more historical and Reformed “Redemptive-Historical” model. The former, despite whatever beliefs of divine and infallible inspiration, sees the Bible as just another text handed down which contains “timeless principles” for this-worldly endeavor. Where the latter is taken up with much more transcendent and otherworldly themes of sin and grace, the former ends up simply telling us things we already know (Law), which is why Aesop’s Fables outdo Holy Writ when it comes to this-worldly advice. Redemptive-Historical tells us things we are not so privy to in our nature (Gospel), which is why Holy Writ surpasses Aesop’s Fables for otherworldly truth. Both texts have differing concerns. While Aesop may help us plod out this world, Scripture gets us into the next. In the Application-Bridge model we curiously get Moses and David held up as mere examples of leadership, and never mind how riddled with superior faults they are. The Redemptive-Historical gives us these figures as types, shadows and pointers to Christ. The difference between these two approaches may be distinguished as the difference between biblical characters as models or as actuals. Able to afford a lack of historicity, Application-Bridge doesn’t really care if Noah or Jesus actually existed, nor how sinful they were or weren’t, because that’s not the point. But the Redemptive-Historical model itself can’t exist if these figures didn’t, and cares deeply about their sinfulness, because that is precisely the point.
In order to understand Mary’s Maginificat a bit better, it may be useful to think more generally about how we experience the Application-Bridge model in and out of season. We will return to Mary, but first, a sidebar about the Application-Bridge model.
In an Application-Bridge model we might hear what I call “Red Sea” or “Storms of Life” messages. The Red Sea or Storm functions like other Bible characters, concerned with this-worldly problems. Red Sea messages replace our collective, common and otherworldly problems (sin and grace) with any host of this-worldly concerns (if you are a human being who gets out of bed every morning, plug in any host of concerns here, great or small). Moving the fulcrum of sin that rests between this world and the next world back into this world, sin gets refashioned into whatever problem we have in this world. And evidently Jesus overcomes those problems for us, which seems at first blush fairly attractive. But as impious as it may sound, the conundrum I have always experienced with this is that Jesus has never solved my this-worldly problems. I still live with fears, doubts, letdowns, regrets, pain, injury, boredom, anxiety and death to greater or lesser degrees. This shifting of the fulcrum from between this world and the next into this world treats our otherworldly problems rather blithely and regards our this-worldly problems with fear and trembling. But shouldn’t it be the other way around? It seems that we anymore think our problem to be our lives rather than how we can stand justly before God, how we move from this world to the next. It’s as if our otherworldly problem has been neatly tucked away in cosmology and perfectly understandable: “Jesus loves us, this we know,” but why in the world did she die so young? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t we be rather un-surprised that we live lives that are characterized by a mixed bag of relative happiness and success, some dilemma and monotony, and painfully difficult experiences? Shouldn’t the surprise be how God has reconciled Himself to us and made way for us into the next age?
Immediate problems with this spiritualized approach aside, one of the most interesting problems to me is how it fractures us as a collective body. It exalts our diverse and particular experiences over our collective and common one. For example, a couple of pews down John may be experiencing some temporal challenges in his life, but I really don’t have any. John may have just lost his job and the doctors still don’t know what is going on with his pregnant wife and do not seem at all hopeful. But my family is healthy, and I honestly can’t think of much that is brooding on my own horizon. I don’t have a proverbial Red Sea. John does. Should I perhaps excuse myself from my pew? Better yet, should I perhaps drum something up so I can at least pretend to participate? Maybe it’s my mid-western values, but that seems awfully condescending in light of John’s circumstances. If we accept the Application-Bridge assumptions, John and I have nothing in common at the moment unless I manufacture a problem in order to fit in. But if we accept the Redemptive-Historical presumptions, we are oddly enough on the very same page. Simply stated, we are both creatures who, regardless of their particular lots, need to move from this world into the next. Sin and grace are our problem and solution despite his pain and my pleasure. John’s situation matters a great deal to say the least; a properly world-affirming and this-worldly piety can say nothing less. But as dire as John’s life is right now, he is not well served by a Red Sea message, and I am not served at all. His mind needs to be on otherworldly concerns. In fact, both our minds should be on such things, no matter how stilted or opposite our particular lives may be. Both of our this-worldly lives, good or bad, should subsume beneath our properly otherworldly concerns.
This leads to another interesting problem. John has enough reason to not be satisfied with this life and to hope for the age to come. What about me, with all my temporal ducks in order? Am I satisfied? I have always found this sort of question quite telling. It’s easy to claim a hope in Christ and in the age to come when life is falling apart. But I often find myself with my temporal ducks more or less in order (I suspect most of us do, given our American demographics that afford such luxuries). Do I have hope in good times, or does that question seem quite nonsensical—hope in the midst of favor? For my part, I can attest that when all is well I am certainly grateful for it. All good things and times come from God; gratitude ought to characterize a well-tutored Reformed faith. We can all do this theology in our sleep. But I always get that twinge that things are still not right. This life, no matter how good, still just doesn’t cut it. This is the tricky nuance of the confessionally Reformed faith and ethic. It is an ethic that captures the life I live. Our world does indeed belong to God and as Reformed Christians we embrace it wholly whether good or bad. Yet, being too tied to the heels of this life is a this-worldly piety gone quite south. In good Reformed theology, I may and ought to authentically lament when things are bad and rejoice when they are good because this life matters. But either way I should also transcend both sorrow and celebration, hoping for the age to come. The Redemptive-Historical model of confessionalism still asks, Do we have hope even in the midst of favor? The escapist, simplistic and two-dimensional Application-Bridge model cannot sustain such a nuanced existence: seek the world to come only when times are bad, and when they are good just enjoy it. I don’t know about you, but I find a complicated life characterized by concentric circles of competing loyalties and intricacies to need a system that can keep up.
In Part Two, I will return to Mary’s Magnificat and explore its problem in an Application-Bridge model.