Translated and written by Spencer Klavan (Young Heretics) and noted for further study and reference:
Let’s Start with Luke 1:26-27:
26…ἀπεστάλη ὁ ἄγγελος Γαβριὴλ ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ εἰς πόλιν τῆς Γαλιλαίας ἧ ὄνομα Ναζαρὲθ 27πρὸς παρθένον ἐμνηστευμένην ἀνδρὶ ᾧ ὄνομα Ἰωσὴφ ἐξ οἴκου Δαυίδ, καὶ τὸ ὄνομα τῆς παρθένου Μαριάμ.
Here’s my translation:
“The angel Gabriel was dispatched from God into the city of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man. The man’s name was Joseph–he was from the house of David–and the name of the virgin was Mary.”
The word parthenos (virgin) here has long been an object of discussion. In classical Greek a parthenos just means a “maiden”–she’s usually a young, unmarried girl, but she doesn’t necessarily have to be a virgin. This matches up nicely with the Hebrew prophecy in Isaiah 7:14–“behold, a maiden shall conceive.” The Hebrew word for “maiden” there is “almah”–like parthenos, it can mean virgin, but it can also just mean “young girl.”
The New Testament, though, goes further–as we’ll shortly see in further installments. Because a few verses later Mary says that she “has not known a man,” meaning she is in fact a virgin. And thus the doctrine of the virgin birth comes into being.
What I love about this is the way the Greek text quietly acknowledges the ambiguity of the prophecy by using a word–parthenos–which echoes the ambiguity of Isaiah’s Hebrew–almah. But Luke also then goes further to resolve that ambiguity by showing that Mary is specifically the kind of “almah” that has not known man–that the person who fulfill the prophecy is, in fact, a virgin.
The New Testament does this a lot, and we don’t always notice it: the Greek authors have carefully read the Hebrew, but they know the Hebrew can be fulfilled in multiple ways. Jesus’ life represents a specific, concrete fulfillment: it narrows down the ambiguities and makes the prediction something real, in the here and now. Even before his birth, then, Jesus is making the infinite specific and personal, narrowing eternity to a point and embodying it in time.
I hope you enjoy these whether you’re Christian or not–it’s a good time to be learning about the richness of these books and what they mean in their original context. It’s a lot more sophisticated than we give it credit for! More anon.
Young Heretics Advent Calendar: Thursday, 12/2
Every day this season I will translate and comment on a small Bible portion. Here’s Luke 1:28-33:
28καὶ εἰσελθὼν πρὸς αὐτὴν εἶπεν, Χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη, ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ. 29ἡ δὲ ἐπὶ τῷ λόγῳ διεταράχθη καὶ διελογίζετο ποταπὸς εἴη ὁ ἀσπασμὸς οὗτος. 30καὶ εἶπεν ὁ ἄγγελος αὐτῇ, Μὴ φοβοῦ, Μαριάμ, εὗρες γὰρ χάριν παρὰ τῷ θεῷ: 31καὶ ἰδοὺ συλλήμψῃ ἐν γαστρὶ καὶ τέξῃ υἱόν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν. 32οὗτος ἔσται μέγας καὶ υἱὸς ὑψίστου κληθήσεται, καὶ δώσει αὐτῷ κύριος ὁ θεὸς τὸν θρόνον Δαυὶδ τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτοῦ, 33καὶ βασιλεύσει ἐπὶ τὸν οἶκον Ἰακὼβ εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, καὶ τῆς βασιλείας αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἔσται τέλος.
The angel came to her and said: “greetings and grace to you who are graced with the presence of the Lord.” But at that utterance she was alarmed and tried to work out what kind of greeting this could be. Then the angel said to her, “don’t be afraid, Mary: you have found grace from God. And see: you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you will call him by the name of Jesus. He will be the magnificent one; he will be called the son of the most high, and the lord will give to him the throne of David his father, and he will be king over the house of Jacob for all ages–of his kingdom, there shall be no end.”
The Angel’s greeting to Mary–translated in the traditional Catholic prayer as “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee”–contains probably my two favorite words in the Greek Bible. “Chaire, kecharitōmenē”: no translation quite captures the music and the wordplay of it.
“Chaire” is a form of greeting like “hail!” or “God save you!” It means both “hi there” and “be well.” But as you can probably see from the shape of the word, “kecharitōmenē” has the same root as Chaire. Chaire is the imperative form, a command: have grace in your life! Kecharitōmenē is a passive participle, a description: you who are full of grace.
The angel takes a standard human greeting and explodes it out of its normal shape, contorting the usual verb form into something strange, complicated, and divine. From the moment of his utterance the command is already fulfilled–he wishes grace to her who already has grace by virtue of the utterance and its contents. It’s a sublime literary flourish and it’s a shame we can’t do it justice in English.
It’s worth noting, too, that in all the ensuing Annunciation Mary is both A) getting a ton of information and B) not being told certain things which we now take for granted. The description the angel gives conforms pretty well to the prophecies of the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible: he will be the great one, called the son of the most high, to rule on the throne of David.
But the natural assumption for most Jews of this time would have been that this was a supernaturally ordained human king–not God himself but the one God would anoint as ruler: in Hebrew, the Meshiach or Mashiach. The Messiah. That word simply means “one who has been anointed” (with kingly and priestly oil). In Greek, the word that means “anointed” and so translates Mashiach is “Christos”: Christ.
So Mary knows now that she will give birth to God’s anointed ruler. But what kind of ruler? How? Why? All these theological commonplaces are mysteries to her in this moment, as I suppose they are ultimately to us as well–to be pondered as much as proclaimed.
Young Heretics Advent Calendar: Friday, 12/3
Here is today’s passage from Luke (1:34-37), first in Greek, then with my translation:
34εἶπεν δὲ Μαριὰμ πρὸς τὸν ἄγγελον, Πῶς ἔσται τοῦτο, ἐπεὶ ἄνδρα οὐ γινώσκω; 35καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ ἄγγελος εἶπεν αὐτῇ, Πνεῦμα ἅγιον ἐπελεύσεται ἐπὶ σέ, καὶ δύναμις ὑψίστου ἐπισκιάσει σοι: διὸ καὶ τὸ γεννώμενον ἅγιον κληθήσεται, υἱὸς θεοῦ. 36καὶ ἰδοὺ Ἐλισάβετ ἡ συγγενίς σου καὶ αὐτὴ συνείληφεν υἱὸν ἐν γήρει αὐτῆς, καὶ οὗτος μὴν ἕκτος ἐστὶν αὐτῇ τῇ καλουμένῃ στείρᾳ: 37ὅτι οὐκ ἀδυνατήσει παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ πᾶν ῥῆμα.
“Then Mary said to the Angel, ‘how will this be, since I know no man?’ And the angel answered: he said to her, ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you. And so the one who is born will be called holy, son of God. And see: Elizabeth your kinswoman, even she has conceived a son in her old age, and this is already the sixth month for her. And they called her barren! For not one thing is impossible with God.”
My comment today is less about the Greek than about Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist and kinswoman of Mary. Prior to these lines we have heard the story from her perspective, as if she were the main character. Now, she serves as a supporting player and a kind of sign: a symbol to Mary that “not one thing is impossible with God.” What strikes me today is that both are true.
Elizabeth, wrapped up in the drama of her miraculous pregnancy and the misadventures of her husband, is an entire human life unto herself. Mary, too, is living out her calling and discovering how much more strange and adventurous it is than she could have fathomed. These are complete little worlds. But through the angel we also get a glimpse into a mysterious fact: Elizabeth is not only a complete story that God is telling. She is also there to serve as an allegory for Mary.
I think we are all like this: both a complete world unto ourselves, and a sign or symbol of God’s favor in somebody else’s life. In the Space Trilogy, Lewis has the angels say that every particle of dust is equally at the center of the universe: “Where Maleldil [God] is, there is the centre. He is in every place.” The old hymn says, “ever more, from his store, new worlds rise up to adore.” Everything is entirely itself, and every consciousness makes the world entirely new by seeing it in from its own fresh perspective.
I am often struck when someone says that some comment I made offhand had this or that pivotal effect on his or her life: for me, that was an insignificant moment. For him, it was a crucial moment when everything changed, and I was just the stone that happened to fall in just the right place so his path went another way. Who is right? We both are. The question falls to pieces from the point of view of God. Jesus, the true center of the universe, makes of Mary and Elizabeth, Joseph and Zechariah, you and me, a cosmos unto ourselves worth dying for.
Young Heretics Advent Calendar 12/4
Here’s Luke 1:38 in Greek:
38εἶπεν δὲ Μαριάμ, Ἰδοὺ ἡ δούλη κυρίου: γένοιτό μοι κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου. καὶ ἀπῆλθεν ἀπ’ αὐτῆς ὁ ἄγγελος.
And here’s my translation:
“And Mary said, ‘behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it happen to me, as you have said.’ And the angel went away from her.”
There has been much annotation and discussion about the Greek word “doulos,” meaning literally “slave.” That, in female form, is what Mary calls herself here: behold the doulē, the slave-girl, of the Lord.
Of course the human world knows all kinds of slavery, most of them vile and all of them subject to abuse. But slavery in the ancient world could also be a gentler arrangement, even a kind of patronage. The servant lived in the house and was under the protection of the family.
I think this must be what Aristotle means in the Politics when he says that the family is made of three fundamental relationships: husband and wife, parent and child, master and slave. At its noblest, slavery in the ancient world was the economic dimension of the family, the way it extended its protection beyond its own biological limits to include the less fortunate.
No doubt many masters treated slaves very poorly, just as many husbands treat their wives very poorly and many parents mistreat their children. But it stands to reason that servitude to God is the best kind, the kind with no trace of corruption or abuse. In that ideal form, ancient slavery means: “live in my house. Pour out your labor upon me and I will pour out my protection and nourishment upon you. The exchange between us will be too total, too complete to be accountable in mere monetary or numerical terms.”
This is not the relationship we will live in with God forever: Jesus says at the appropriate time that he no longer calls us servants but friends. But at this crucial moment Mary says to God that she will consent to total servitude, to give over even her body. The membership in God’s household which she receives in return will be extended to all humanity.
Modern ethics teaches us to count up everything in terms of dollars, as if even motherhood and housework could be cashed out in financial terms. But Mary’s labor is beyond any wage she could receive, and the relation of loving submission she enters into is answered with a patronage that knows no talk of limits or price.
“They are but beggars that can count their worth,” said Juliet to Romeo at the moment of their marriage. There is no reckoning or settling of accounts between those who offer their very flesh to one another–as wife to husband, as Mary to Christ, as Christ to us.
Young Heretics Advent Calendar 12/5
39Ἀναστᾶσα δὲ Μαριὰμ ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις ταύταις ἐπορεύθη εἰς τὴν ὀρεινὴν μετὰ σπουδῆς εἰς πόλιν Ἰούδα, 40καὶ εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον Ζαχαρίου καὶ ἠσπάσατο τὴν Ἐλισάβετ. 41καὶ ἐγένετο ὡς ἤκουσεν τὸν ἀσπασμὸν τῆς Μαρίας ἡ Ἐλισάβετ, ἐσκίρτησεν τὸ βρέφος ἐν τῇ κοιλίᾳ αὐτῆς, καὶ ἐπλήσθη πνεύματος ἁγίου ἡ Ἐλισάβετ
“Mary stood up in those days and went into the hill country eagerly, into the city of Juda. And she came into the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. Then it happened: when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leapt for joy, and Elizabeth was full of the Holy Spirit.”
It’s interesting to me that the word for “greeting” here–aspasmos–is the same as the word used for the Angel’s strange salutation a few lines earlier (“Mary pondered what sort of greeting this could be…”). The word is warmer in Greek than “greeting” in English: literally it can mean “embrace.” These are family members, a young girl and an old matron, falling into one another’s arms. They must have been dying to see each other.
Worth noting, too, that a baby in the womb was the first ever to recognize Jesus: for those who don’t know, the baby Elizabeth has conceived is John the Baptist, prophetic forerunner of Christ’s coming. John knew his savior long before he announced him on the River Jordan–the news that was once brought from the angel to Mary is now brought from womb to womb. From hence forth the content of heavenly utterance is not words but flesh, the very fact of the life inside Mary. What manner of greeting is this, indeed.
The Young Heretics Advent Calendar 12/6
Here’s Luke 1:42-45 in Greek:
42καὶ ἀνεφώνησεν κραυγῇ μεγάλῃ καὶ εἶπεν, Εὐλογημένη σὺ ἐν γυναιξίν, καὶ εὐλογημένος ὁ καρπὸς τῆς κοιλίας σου. 43καὶ πόθεν μοι τοῦτο ἵνα ἔλθῃ ἡ μήτηρ τοῦ κυρίου μου πρὸς ἐμέ; 44ἰδοὺ γὰρ ὡς ἐγένετο ἡ φωνὴ τοῦ ἀσπασμοῦ σου εἰς τὰ ὦτά μου, ἐσκίρτησεν ἐν ἀγαλλιάσει τὸ βρέφος ἐν τῇ κοιλίᾳ μου. 45καὶ μακαρία ἡ πιστεύσασα ὅτι ἔσται τελείωσις τοῖς λελαλημένοις αὐτῇ παρὰ κυρίου.
And my translation:
Elizabeth cried out with a great shout and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. How should this be, that the mother of my lord should come to me? See: at the sound of your greeting in my ears, the child in my womb leapt up in rejoicing. And blessed is she who trusts in the completion of all the things said to her by her lord.”
Another untranslatable phrase is “eskirtēsen en agalliasei,” which I’ve rendered here as “leapt up in rejoicing.” But the phrase Elizabeth uses to describe her baby’s motion in the womb is the phrase that epic poets use to describe young men and horses in the prime of their lives, running and tossing their heads in the sheer exaltation of their strength. It’s an intensely male energy, the rambunctious kind that young men show when they’re roughhousing with each other. The baby has a character of its own, the kind that rejoices in the robust abundance of life.
It’s distinct from the shout with which Elizabeth greets Mary–the “kraugē megalē”–which is just a generic phrase for “loud shout,” but which I have always imagined in this case as the kind of delighted squeal that some women who love each other make at an exciting or long-anticipated moment of meeting.
Everyone is brimming with uncontainable glee here, and each in his own way: a profoundly human, and yet totally miraculous, scene of anticipation. A feeling of “here it is, at last, the moment when it all gets going.” For all the trouble and struggle that is to come, I love seeing them this way in this strange tableau of unforced intimacy–the two unborn babies and the mothers old and young, the strangest and most lovely family in the world.
Young Heretics Advent Calendar 12/7
Here’s Luke 1:46-55 in Greek:
46Καὶ εἶπεν Μαριάμ, Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν κύριον, 47καὶ ἠγαλλίασεν τὸ πνεῦμά μου ἐπὶ τῷ θεῷ τῷ σωτῆρί μου, 48ὅτι ἐπέβλεψεν ἐπὶ τὴν ταπείνωσιν τῆς δούλης αὐτοῦ. ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί: 49ὅτι ἐποίησέν μοι μεγάλα ὁ δυνατός, καὶ ἅγιον τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ
And here’s my translation:
And Mary said, “my soul magnifies the LORD, and my spirit has gloried in God my savior. For he looked down from on high upon on the humility of his serving-girl, and see: from from this moment all generations will bless my name. For the mighty one has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s greeting is a song, a poem, a prophecy. It is called the “magnificat,” because that is the Latin translation of the first word in Greek: “Megalunei.” It means “magnifies” or “calls great”–my soul magnifies the LORD, sings Mary. What comes next is a single flawless composition, but I will divide it roughly here into three parts which I will translate over the course of three days. Mary sings about what God has done for her, for the world, and for the people of Israel.
First, she sings about herself: God has looked upon her “tapeinōsis,” a word referring to abject poverty and lowliness. It’s more than just lacking money: those who are “tapeinoi” lack all social standing, authority, and power. This is what God has looked on and seen in Mary: not just her position in the world but a spiritual sense of total submission and need.
Mary says, in effect, that this is why he has chosen her: he saw not only that she lacked money and social position, but that she considered herself that way in spirit, too. The outer poverty of her life was mirrored by an inward receptivity, a sense that she had nothing to offer God and God had everything to offer her. The irony is that sense of need is her offering: she knows she has nothing to give God, and so God is well pleased to receive her.
In this, as the rest of the song shows, Mary is a stand-in for all of humanity: those who are aware of themselves as beggars can give themselves to God and receive his favor. Those whom the world has taught to think of themselves as great must be brought low before they can have any hope of conversion. Mary’s name will be blessed for all generations because she is the one who knew fully that God’s name alone is blessed of itself.
Young Heretics Advent Calendar 12/8
Here’s Luke 1:50-53 in Greek:
50καὶ τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ εἰς γενεὰς καὶ γενεὰς τοῖς φοβουμένοις αὐτόν. 51Ἐποίησεν κράτος ἐν βραχίονι αὐτοῦ, διεσκόρπισεν ὑπερηφάνους διανοίᾳ καρδίας αὐτῶν: 52καθεῖλεν δυνάστας ἀπὸ θρόνων καὶ ὕψωσεν ταπεινούς, 53πεινῶντας ἐνέπλησεν ἀγαθῶν καὶ πλουτοῦντας ἐξαπέστειλεν κενούς
And here’s my translation:
“And his mercy endures from generation to generation for those who fear him. He has shown the strength of his arm, scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts; he has tossed the mighty down from their thrones and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
The link between the first part of the Magnificat, which I translated yesterday, and this middle part, which I translate today, is God. Mary considers how God has treated her in her lowliness, and moves from there to reflect on what this reveals about God’s nature more generally, and how he treats the world.
The answer is: he inverts every power relation and thwarts every kind of self-regard to elevate those who think of themselves as little as possible. I love the phrase “dianoia tēs kardias autōn,” which means literally “in the thinking of their heart.” The translation I’ve given is the traditional one: proud rulers have grand designs “in the imagination of their hearts.”
It’s a perfect description of today’s ruling elites, their grand dreams to erase human nature, establish one world government, and rule over a digital world where all the rules are changed. Think of the metaverse, or Klaus Schwab in Davos, or COVID tyranny: these are all examples of “the proud” who imagine that they can remake the world in their own image by sheer force of will.
It’s encouraging to me to find those fantasies of world domination so perfectly described in just a few words from two thousand years ago, with a promise that it will all come to nothing. We may be surprised at how the kings of this world talk, at their arrogance and self-sure dreams of power. God is not.
Young Heretics Advent Calendar 12/9
ΝΟΤΕ: every day during Advent, I am translating a portion of Luke’s gospel and commenting on its meaning in light of the Greek. Most of the installments are only available to Young Heretics VIPs, but I’ve made this one free to all–so you can see what you’re missing!
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Luke 1:54-6 in Greek:
54ἀντελάβετο Ἰσραὴλ παιδὸς αὐτοῦ, μνησθῆναι ἐλέους, 55καθὼς ἐλάλησεν πρὸς τοὺς πατέρας ἡμῶν, τῷ Ἀβραὰμ καὶ τῷ σπέρματι αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα. 56Ἔμεινεν δὲ Μαριὰμ σὺν αὐτῇ ὡς μῆνας τρεῖς, καὶ ὑπέστρεψεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον αὐτῆς.
And my translation:
“‘He has taken the side of his child, Israel, remembering his mercy as he said to their fathers–to Abraham and his seed across every age.’ And Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, and went back to her house.”
Often translations here will say “his servant Israel.” And it’s true that the Greek “pais” can mean “servant.” But it can also mean “child,” and that is also how God talks about the people of Israel. “Israel is my first-born son” (Exodus 4:22)–at the moment of ransom from Egypt, God tells his people that he will treat them corporately as a dependent in his household.
I think the connection here between “child” and “servant” underscores what I said earlier about Mary: that if she is a “slave” of the Lord it is in the ancient sense of a member of the household, and one destined to be adopted at that. As God once brought his people out of bondage, now he will bring them out of sin, because they are his and he will ransom them at a high price (compare Isaiah 43).
All of this also makes a connection between the whole nation of Israel and Jesus, both of whom are God’s son: Jesus himself will now do in his own life what Israel as a whole nation did in Egypt. He will go down into bondage, be ransomed by God, and set free. And just as Israel’s exodus from Egypt inaugurated an age of freedom for all those who were born afterward, Jesus’s victory over death will usher in generations and generations of adoption into God’s household.
Young Heretics Advent Calendar 12/10
Here’s Luke 1:57-61 in Greek:
57Τῇ δὲ Ἐλισάβετ ἐπλήσθη ὁ χρόνος τοῦ τεκεῖν αὐτήν, καὶ ἐγέννησεν υἱόν. 58καὶ ἤκουσαν οἱ περίοικοι καὶ οἱ συγγενεῖς αὐτῆς ὅτι ἐμεγάλυνεν κύριος τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ μετ’ αὐτῆς, καὶ συνέχαιρον αὐτῇ. 59Καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ ὀγδόῃ ἦλθον περιτεμεῖν τὸ παιδίον, καὶ ἐκάλουν αὐτὸ ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματι τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτοῦ Ζαχαρίαν. 60καὶ ἀποκριθεῖσα ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ εἶπεν, Οὐχί, ἀλλὰ κληθήσεται Ἰωάννης. 61καὶ εἶπαν πρὸς αὐτὴν ὅτι Οὐδείς ἐστιν ἐκ τῆς συγγενείας σου ὃς καλεῖται τῷ ὀνόματι τούτῳ.
And my translation:
“For Elizabeth, the time was completed for her to have her baby, and she gave birth to a son. Then those who lived nearby and her kinsmen heard that the Lord had magnified his mercy with her, and they rejoiced with her. And it transpired that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they called him by the name of his father: Zechariah. But in response his mother said, ‘no: call him John.'”
Tomorrow, I will say more about the highly unusual discussion of the baby’s name. For now I just wanted to note something I had never quite seen before: John, whose coming has been foretold as the voice that cries out in the wilderness of Isaiah 40, is “preparing the way of the Lord” even now. Before Jesus will heal the sick or the blind, before he will go to the cross, he will undergo all the rituals that any Jewish newborn son would. He will be circumcised, presented in the temple, and named.
John goes through all that in advance of Jesus, and Luke takes care to tell us so: even in small human matters, John lays the groundwork for what will happen to Jesus. In this way he gathers all human experience up to this point and goes through it one last time before everything changes: there is a kind of poignancy to this passage which is like the poignancy of closing the doors on your old house for the last time.
Maybe you are more than ready to leave the house, maybe it’s too small and the new one is better in every way–better neighborhood, better fit, better bones. But you still feel that catch in your chest as you look on the empty living room where you spent your earlier years. That’s what this scene reminds me of: the basic rituals of human life performed once more before Jesus performs them, and their meaning is forever changed.
Christians believe that many of these rituals take on a character of prophecy now: once they were the law of God, now they are shown as a precursor to redeemed life. But we feel no less affection for them despite all that–it is a heresy to say that the Jewish law was some kind of idolatry or sin. It was, in the Christian view, the house humanity lived in with God until we moved into the mansion of heaven, which Jesus now prepares for us. This scene is like the one last look we take at our first house and the memories we made in it, before closing the door and moving on.
Young Heretics Advent Calendar 12/11-12
First of all, let me apologize for missing the Advent Calendar yesterday! We were throwing a Christmas party and I lost track of the time.
To make up for it, here’s an extra long excerpt to cover the two days. Luke 1:61-66 in Greek:
61καὶ εἶπαν πρὸς αὐτὴν ὅτι Οὐδείς ἐστιν ἐκ τῆς συγγενείας σου ὃς καλεῖται τῷ ὀνόματι τούτῳ. 62ἐνένευον δὲ τῷ πατρὶ αὐτοῦ τὸ τί ἂν θέλοι καλεῖσθαι αὐτό. 63καὶ αἰτήσας πινακίδιον ἔγραψεν λέγων, Ἰωάννης ἐστὶν ὄνομα αὐτοῦ. καὶ ἐθαύμασαν πάντες. 64ἀνεῴχθη δὲ τὸ στόμα αὐτοῦ παραχρῆμα καὶ ἡ γλῶσσα αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐλάλει εὐλογῶν τὸν θεόν. 65καὶ ἐγένετο ἐπὶ πάντας φόβος τοὺς περιοικοῦντας αὐτούς, καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ὀρεινῇ τῆς Ἰουδαίας διελαλεῖτο πάντα τὰ ῥήματα ταῦτα, 66καὶ ἔθεντο πάντες οἱ ἀκούσαντες ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτῶν, λέγοντες, Τί ἄρα τὸ παιδίον τοῦτο ἔσται; καὶ γὰρ χεὶρ κυρίου ἦν μετ’ αὐτοῦ.
And my translation:
“They said to Elizabeth, ‘there’s no one of any relation to you who is called by that name.’ They made signs to his father, asking what he wanted the child to be called. So, he sent for a tablet and wrote on it the statement, ‘John is his name.’ And they were all astonished. Then his mouth was opened suddenly and his tongue released, and he spoke in praise of God. And fear fell upon all those living nearby, and in the whole hill country of Judea all these things were discussed, and all those who heard it took it to heart, saying, ‘what will this child be then?’ For the hand of the Lord himself was with him.”
An untranslatable Greek word that needs our close attention is the verb “thaumazō.” In Greek, a “thauma” is a wonder, a mystery, or a portent: it might be a blazing star that lights up the heavens, or a calf born with two heads, or an act of God to turn the tide of a battle. It’s something astonishing and unusual, something that seems charged with meaning but remains difficult to interpret.
So here when Luke says that all the neighbors “ethaumasen,” i.e., “were astonished,” it means not just that the events were unexpected but that they seemed to have an obscure meaning. It means the people saw in these events some symbol of a great and mysterious thing to come.
Zechariah had his speech taken from him by an angel because he questioned the prophecy of John’s birth in Elizabeth’s old age. Now his speech is restored when he affirms, contrary to normal practice and tradition, that the baby will be named John. It is a name that can only come from heaven, because it breaks the usual practice of naming a boy child after another man in the family. Like any miracle, this one shows itself by changing the usual fixed pattern of things.
The miracle of naming is followed by a miracle of speech: in the presence of this John, harbinger of Jesus, the dumb are given voice. It is only a precursor, as Zechariah was not mute from birth but rendered mute through divine intercession. This makes it like a little forecast, a miniature play-acted version of the miraculous healings that will soon follow.
What Zechariah is learning and showing is that the normal course of things–the laws of nature and the laws of custom alike–stands as the background against which extraordinary events and miracles have meaning.
If the Jews hadn’t faithfully maintained the practice of naming babies after relatives, it would not mean anything that this baby is named John. If it were not regularly the case that elderly women don’t give birth and mute men don’t usually gain the power of speech, the fact that it is happening now would not be a thauma, a significant happening which breaks the usual course of event and points to higher meaning.
In this sense Zechariah is learning the difference between grammar and poetry: he loses the power of speech because he must learn the nature of meaning, that it comes not from the regular but against the backdrop of the regular. He thought that nothing could break the law of nature. Now he sees that the laws of nature are there so that when they are suspended, we may recognize the presence of God.
The backdrop of law is what makes miracles meaningful: it is because these occurrences break the usual course of things that the people are not simply astonished by them but enraptured, set thinking what will happen and what it will mean. In a world with no rules all events are meaningless, carrying with them no significance beyond the mere fact of themselves. In this world–the highly structured world of physics and custom–every deviation carries with it thunderous significance.
Young Heretics Advent Calendar 12/13
We are reaching the heart of the season now. This week will be Zechariah’s prophecy (now that his mouth has been opened!) and next week will be the nativity story itself.
I love that our little project has sort of taken its own shape week by week: we had the annunciation, then Mary’s visit to Elizabeth with the Magnificat, now Zechariah, then the birth. Didn’t plan it that way but there you go!
Luke 1:67-68 in Greek:
67Καὶ Ζαχαρίας ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ ἐπλήσθη πνεύματος ἁγίου καὶ ἐπροφήτευσεν λέγων, 68Εὐλογητὸς κύριος ὁ θεὸς τοῦ Ἰσραήλ, ὅτι ἐπεσκέψατο καὶ ἐποίησεν λύτρωσιν τῷ λαῷ αὐτοῦ
And my translation:
“Then Zechariah his father was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying: ‘blessed be the Lord, the god of Israel, he that looked down and made a ransom for his people.'”
This prophetic song, which we’ll be translating together all week, is called the Benedictus–once again, the name comes from the Latin version of the first word. Eulogētos=Benedictus=blessed.
All three of the songs, or canticles, from Luke 1-2 feature prominently in traditional Christian worship services (this is why each is known by its Latin opening, or “incipit”). The first, which we have read already, is the Magnificat. The third is the Nunc Dimittis, a song which the old man Simeon sings when Christ is presented in the temple eight days after his birth.
Both the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis are traditionally recited or sung during evening prayer (in the Anglican Church) or vespers (in the Catholic Church). But This middle song–Zechariah’s “Benedictus”–is a morning song, sung at morning prayer (Anglicans) or Lauds (Catholics).
This is a song of the daybreak, of dawn’s first light. It culminates in a famous line, which I could never translate better than it has already been rendered in English: “in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.”
That sense of beginning is reflected in this first sentence, about the “lutrōsis,” or ransom, of Israel. Typically God’s “ransom” refers to the extreme lengths to which he will go to save or rescue his people. “I give Egypt as your ransom,” says God at Isaiah 43:3, clearly referring to the exodus or liberation from slavery in Egypt.
Zechariah is reaching back to the very beginning of Israel’s journey, the inaugural story of their formation as a people, and identifying this moment with that one. This is the dawn, he says, of a new age–when God will once again set his people free at enormous cost.
Young Heretics Advent Calendar 12/14
Here are the next few lines of Zechariah’s Benedictus (from Luke 1:69-70) in Greek:
69καὶ ἤγειρεν κέρας σωτηρίας ἡμῖν ἐν οἴκῳ Δαυὶδ παιδὸς αὐτοῦ, 70καθὼς ἐλάλησεν διὰ στόματος τῶν ἁγίων ἀπ’ αἰῶνος προφητῶν αὐτοῦ
“He raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David his son, as he said through the mouth of his holy prophets from ages past.”
This is the second use of the word “pais,” meaning either “child” or “servant,” that has occurred in Luke 1. The previous one was in Mary’s Magnificat, referring to the nation of Israel as the cherished dependent of God’s household. The next time the word occurs, it will refer to Jesus himself. Now it is David, founder-king of Jerusalem’s monarchy, whose house is the house of Israel and of Christ.
So far as I can tell, no one has yet realized explicitly that the child who is coming will be God himself. What they are discerning, though, is that the whole of God’s relationship to man will be gathered up into this one boy: when God ransomed Israel from Egypt, he claimed the people as his firstborn son. When God anointed David, he set an earthly ruler over the people who would stand in for them all as monarch. Now he is bringing forth another child in the same line, who will be the ultimate embodiment of all that humanity is in relation to God.
The finality of the thing is suggested by the long line of prophets that goes before it: this is what they were all waiting for, what everything was leading up to. The great and mighty savior will be, in a very real sense, the most childlike among us, the one most totally descended from God. Humanity has always been in relation to God like a child in relation to a father: utterly dependent and lavishly adored. Now, though no one yet realizes it, God himself will become in relation to humanity as humanity has been in relation to God: vulnerable, infant, and newborn. The last revelation is that God, who is eternally his people’s father, joins forever in communion with his children as the son.
YOUNG HERETICS ADVENT CALENDAR BONANZA
Hi friends! First of all, I have to apologize–I thought I had posted the latest Young Heretics Advent Calendar, but then I went back and found it half-autosaved in drafts. Sad! I hope you haven’t felt too deprived.
To make up for it, here’s a big chunk with miscellaneous comments. This will get us back up to speed. Luke 1:70-77:
70καθὼς ἐλάλησεν διὰ στόματος τῶν ἁγίων ἀπ’ αἰῶνος προφητῶν αὐτοῦ, 71σωτηρίαν ἐξ ἐχθρῶν ἡμῶν καὶ ἐκ χειρὸς πάντων τῶν μισούντων ἡμᾶς: 72ποιῆσαι ἔλεος μετὰ τῶν πατέρων ἡμῶν καὶ μνησθῆναι διαθήκης ἁγίας αὐτοῦ, 73ὅρκον ὃν ὤμοσεν πρὸς Ἀβραὰμ τὸν πατέρα ἡμῶν, τοῦ δοῦναι ἡμῖν 74ἀφόβως ἐκ χειρὸς ἐχθρῶν ῥυσθέντας λατρεύειν αὐτῷ 75ἐν ὁσιότητι καὶ δικαιοσύνῃ ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ πάσαις ταῖς ἡμέραις ἡμῶν. 76Καὶ σὺ δέ, παιδίον, προφήτης ὑψίστου κληθήσῃ, προπορεύσῃ γὰρ ἐνώπιον κυρίου ἑτοιμάσαι ὁδοὺς αὐτοῦ, 77τοῦ δοῦναι γνῶσιν σωτηρίας τῷ λαῷ αὐτοῦ ἐν ἀφέσει ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν.
And my translation:
“As he said through the mouth of his holy prophets from ages past: salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all those that hate us, to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to Abraham our father, to deliver us fearless from the hands of our enemies, rescued, to serve him in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life.
And you, child, will be called prophet of the most high. For you will go before the Lord and prepare his pathways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the erasure of all their sins.”
A curious thing, first of all, about the word “diathēkē”–a word I’ve translated here as “covenant.” It’s a Greek version of the Hebrew word, “b’rit,” which you may have seen in the names of various Synagogues. It means a binding contract or agreement, something two people or parties swear to. In greek the etymology is literally that which you “put between” you and the other party: it’s the relationship that emerges between you in spirit and in law when you swear an oath.
So the Covenant God is remembering here is the promise of God to Abraham, as Zechariah says: this is the vow God made to the Jewish people that salvation would come through them, that they would be his, and he theirs. It’s also why we talk about marriage as a covenant too: in the original meaning of the word, any kind of binding lifelong agreement between two people qualified. So God’s promise to Abraham is a little like a marriage between himself and his chosen people.
That is of course the imagery that is famously revived in the letter to the Ephesians. Because later on in Luke, at the Last Supper, Jesus will say “this cup is the new covenant in my blood” (touto to potērion hē kainē diathēkē en tō haimati mou). When Jesus goes to the cross he both renews the old promise and expands it out to the whole world: the blood of Cross is a promissory note, a marriage license, an agreement between God and the whole human race that sins are forgiven and salvation offered to those who repent.
Now here’s the last thing I’ll say: the word diathēkē can also be translated as “testament,” as in “last will and testament.” Because a will is also a binding document, an agreement in which you “testify” to your official desires after your death.
And so our English terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” are actually translations of the Greek titles: palaia diathēkē and kainē diathēkē. The old covenant and the new.
For Christians, the whole Bible is just the sum total of God’s two promissory notes, the description and depiction and realization of all he has promised to us throughout time. In the stories of Israel’s history, in the four narratives of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, in the recorded birth and flourishing of the young Christian church, we find recorded the sum total of what God vows in his marriage with us.
And it is just this: “to deliver us fearless from the hands of our enemies, rescued, to serve him in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life. ” As he swore to our father Abraham, and his people after him, and in Christ to every one of us, each day of our lives and until the last syllable of recorded time, world without end, amen.
PS Okay I lied: I have one more thing to say. I’ve translated “forgiveness” (aphesis) as “erasure” here. That’s because the Gospels’ word for forgiveness is a distinct word, “aphiēmi.” It literally means “I send away.”
There is another Greek word for forgiveness which the Gospels do not use: sungignōskō. That word means “I understand with you. I get why you did what you did.”
But aphesis is more total than that: it means you may not understand it at all, but still, you let it go. As far as the east is from the west, so far does aphesis separate sin from sinner. Erasure is my way of capturing the total obliteration of sin that happens when God forgives us, totally and without blemish or stain.
Young Heretics Advent Calendar 12/18
Here are the most famous words in Zechariah’s song, first in Greek:
78διὰ σπλάγχνα ἐλέους θεοῦ ἡμῶν, ἐν οἷς ἐπισκέψεται ἡμᾶς ἀνατολὴ ἐξ ὕψους, 79ἐπιφᾶναι τοῖς ἐν σκότει καὶ σκιᾷ θανάτου καθημένοις, τοῦ κατευθῦναι τοὺς πόδας ἡμῶν εἰς ὁδὸν εἰρήνης.
And in my translation:
“Through the tender mercy of our God, in which the dawn from on high will shine down upon us, giving light to those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet down the straight road of peace.”
As I said earlier, I could never translate this first sentence better than its glorious liturgical rendering: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.” But I do want to make a couple notes about the untranslatable aspects of this passage.
“splangchna” is a wonderful word. It means “guts,” or “innards”–specifically perhaps the kidneys or the lungs–but just like our “gut” it can come to mean “inmost feelings.” Like when we say “I feel it in my gut.”
So the phrase here that is translated as “tender compassion” is actually “the guts of mercy” of our God. It indicates not just an abstract sense of pity but a profound fellow felling, the kind that hits you deep in your heart and belly. That’s why the church calls it “tender”–tender not just in the abstract but as a wound is tender, or an open sore.
Throughout Jesus’ life the gospels use a verb, “splangchizō,” which means to be stricken with compassion in the pit of your gut. Besides the incredibly satisfying and squishy sound of the word, it’s an amazing way the text has of conveying the profoundly felt anguish with which Jesus responded to human sorrow.
And beyond that it’s an acknowledgement of the body as more than matter: we feel things most deeply not when they float in some pure ether, but when they hit us almost bodily, when pity or fear or joy run palpably through our veins or into our guts. In those moments body and soul are in union, the flesh living out what the spirit experiences.
If the incarnation means anything it means spirit is at home in flesh. We talk in modern terms as if our feelings are just chemical reactions–a dopamine hit here, a serotonin rush there. But it’s the opposite way around. The dopamine and the adrenaline and the serotonin, the catch in the chest and the pit of the stomach, the flutter of the heart–these are bodily manifestations of spiritual realities, the soul of us governing our biology.
We are made in God’s image entirely: not merely some disembodied aspect of us but all of us, body and soul, spirit and flesh, mercy and guts. It is what we are because it is what he is.
Young Heretics Advent Calendar 12/19
Just a quick one-liner on this Sabbath day to bring us up to speed and into Luke 2…next week is the nativity story, but today it’s Luke 1:80, in Greek:
80Τὸ δὲ παιδίον ηὔξανεν καὶ ἐκραταιοῦτο πνεύματι, καὶ ἦν ἐν ταῖς ἐρήμοις ἕως ἡμέρας ἀναδείξεως αὐτοῦ πρὸς τὸν Ἰσραήλ.
And in my translation:
“And the child grew up strong in the spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his revelation to Israel.”
This is probably the last we’ll see John this Advent–waiting in the wilderness until Jesus comes forth for baptism. The first part of the sentence is a stock phrase–we often hear of someone that they “grew up and grew strong”–which speaks to our conversation during office hours about the hero’s journey. That pattern which Campbell recognized in the legends of the world is a recurring theme of traditional stories because it’s a basic pattern of life. The hero comes of age, reaches maturity, and waits for something–he knows not yet
Young Heretics Advent Calendar 12/20
1 ἐγένετο δὲ ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις ἐξῆλθεν δόγμα παρὰ καίσαρος αὐγούστου ἀπογράφεσθαι πᾶσαν τὴν οἰκουμένην. 2 αὕτη ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη ἐγένετο ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς συρίας κυρηνίου.
“Then it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to have the whole citizenry registered. This first census took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”
The decree went out from Caesar over all the civilized world—over everywhere that was “oikoumenē”—inhabited. The households of the empire were to be registered, and for that they must go to their ancestral home.
We think of this as a command for purpose of taxation, but it was more total than that: Augustus wanted everybody accounted for, known about, controlled. He was looking for the kind of knowledge Facebook gathers about its users: where they’re from, where they are, what they do. The kind of things a god would know about his creation.
And yet the story this season is about what Caesar didn’t know, what he didn’t even think to look for. He would have been concerned about a potential threat to his power, any rival king or local challenger. But all his vast administrative apparatus had no way of accounting for the possibility that the prophecies of a tiny tribal kingdom in the remote East might actually come true.
Every algorithm, every system, every government, becomes complete by shutting out some possibilities. Kings and princes make their power total by closing off avenues of escape, by eliminating outside possibilities. The route God chose into the world was simply to be one such unexpected event, to come in a way Caesar couldn’t see because he simply didn’t conceive of it as the kind of thing that happens.
Christmas is the season of the glitch in the system, the unpredicted outcome, the unlooked for hope. It is the risk that Dr. Fauci can’t prevent, the variable that Zuckerberg won’t calculate, the birth that Caesar hadn’t accounted for. It is the salvation that will come whether you like it or not.
“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before”: that though he had locked away every predictable sign of the season, “he hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming. It came,” bursting like a flood through a dam or a child through the birth canal. You can’t escape this gift, whether you wish you could or fear you already have.
Young Heretics Advent Calendar 12/21
3καὶ ἐπορεύοντο πάντες ἀπογράφεσθαι, ἕκαστος εἰς τὴν ἑαυτοῦ πόλιν. 4Ἀνέβη δὲ καὶ Ἰωσὴφ ἀπὸ τῆς Γαλιλαίας ἐκ πόλεως Ναζαρὲθ εἰς τὴν Ἰουδαίαν εἰς πόλιν Δαυὶδ ἥτις καλεῖται Βηθλέεμ, διὰ τὸ εἶναι αὐτὸν ἐξ οἴκου καὶ πατριᾶς Δαυίδ, 5ἀπογράψασθαι σὺν Μαριὰμ τῇ ἐμνηστευμένῃ αὐτῷ, οὔσῃ ἐγκύῳ.
“Everyone went to be registered, each one to his own city. And Joseph went up from Galilee from the city of David into Judea, into the city of David which is called Bethlehem–on account of his being from the house and lineage of David–to be registered with Mary, who was betrothed to him, while she was pregnant.”
They went from Galilee to Judea, from Nazareth to Bethlehem: a journey south. The Greek says they went “up” (anebē), which must refer to the climb in elevation: the city of David is a mountain city, in the hills of Judea near Jerusalem, where the king was once a shepherd.
The Lord anointed David king through Samuel, who was sent to Bethlehem in search of a ruler for Israel. Samuel found David there among the sheep, handsome and ruddy-faced but young and humble. He did not look to human eyes like a king.
Joseph goes back to his ancestral homeland, the place where the royal line began, because it is where he can be identified as the descendant of that line. The long years of civil war and exile and conquest that have intervened between David’s days and Joseph’s have not erased the record of where he comes from: they have enriched it.
With every passing year the name of David and of Bethlehem takes on more weight and significance. Joseph comes now to gather up all that history and meaning into his own family, his own life, again in a manner invisible to the eyes of men.
We go home too, for the holidays, and for much the same reason: because we think it matters where we came from, and because it matters more, not less, now that we have left. Not for nothing is the Christmas season a season of nostalgia: living in the present as we do, we feel the loss of the past keenly when we are reminded of it.
But in God’s mind the past is not lost: it is only layered underneath the present, hundreds and thousands of years lacquered onto one another until the picture is complete. The experience of year on year reveals to us what the past really meant better than we understood when we lived through it.
When we grieve the mother who once watched us tear presents open under the tree, we see her more fully in our pain than we did as a child. Looking at her with adult eyes through the lens of passing time, we see the whole woman: mortal, chaste, faltering, beloved.
The moment of Jesus’ birth is a position in time from which all history looks uniquely blessed: from the perspective of this moment the fall of Eve is seen for the prelude it was and the cross is seen as the culminating sacrifice it will be. And somewhere back through the distance of a thousand years we see the shepherd boy waiting to be crowned king, father and precursor and symbol of the king who agreed to die for his sheep.
Young Heretics Advent Calendar: John Special
In our reading of Luke we have actually reached the point at which Jesus is to be born. But we still have a few days of Advent contemplation, and so in these days of reverent silence I’m going to add in some of the mysteries in John’s Gospel, Chapter 1. Here are verses 1-5:
1Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. 2οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. 3πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν 4ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων: 5καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.
And my translation:
“At the foundation was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. This was at the foundation with God. Everything was coming into being through him, and without him not one thing was coming into being. What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of mankind: and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”
Among John’s many achievements as a mystic is his careful manipulation of verb tenses. In the transition between verses 3 and 4 something very profound happens: the continuous past tense (imperfect, egeneto) switches to the completed past tense (aorist, gegonen). In other words we go from “was coming into being” to “came into being.”
In Greek, as in English, we distinguish between events of ongoing duration (I was eating a sandwich) and events of definite duration (I ate a sandwich). Crucially, that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily describing two different actions so much as describing the same action in different ways.
Here John tells us how it was “in the beginning,” that is, at the very foundation of time. As Augustine reminds us in Book 11 of the Confessions, this does not mean that God was somehow living this way “before” time started, since there is no such thing as “before” time. Instead we are talking here about the context within which time takes place: God is, and God creates, at every moment. But God is not circumscribed by the sum total of all moments: he exists in a way not bound by time.
So it is that the divine creativity is eternal and ongoing: “everything was coming into being” through the word, and nothing that was coming into being was anything other than the action of the word. But “what came into being” was life: the creation of life brings a dimension of time into being, so that we can switch from the ongoing past to the definite past.
We live in time, but what is expressing itself in time is timeless: God’s eternal activity of creation finds expression in the finite moments of our lives, and in the concrete here and now where Christ is born. What was in the beginning and beyond all time is also what is here and now, at that moment and in this moment, born again with every passing second because all seconds are contained within it.
In Proverbs chapter 8 Wisdom declares that she was poured forth at the foundation of the world: It is in God’s nature to express, and what he expresses is the excellence of himself. In Christ we have in miniature what is constantly going on across the whole canvas of the heavens, the declaration of the unchanging glory of God whose world is truly without end.
Young Heretics Advent Calendar 12/23
As I mentioned on Twitter, I’m going to go dark for a couple days as I prepare for the holiday with my family. I hope you get a chance to do the same, and I hope that this advent calendar has been useful to you in your preparations–wherever you are at this moment vis-a-vis the church.
I’m enormously grateful for all of you, and I can’t wait for what the new year will bring. I’ll be back after the holiday itself to check in and say hi, and I’ve enjoyed doing these commentaries so much that I might have to keep them up after the 25th. But for now I wanted just to leave you with these few verses on the birth of Christ itself. Luke 2:6-7:
6ἐγένετο δὲ ἐν τῷ εἶναι αὐτοὺς ἐκεῖ ἐπλήσθησαν αἱ ἡμέραι τοῦ τεκεῖν αὐτήν, 7καὶ ἔτεκεν τὸν υἱὸν αὐτῆς τὸν πρωτότοκον: καὶ ἐσπαργάνωσεν αὐτὸν καὶ ἀνέκλινεν αὐτὸν ἐν φάτνῃ, διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι.
“It happened that while they were there, the time came for her to have her baby. And she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She swaddled him and laid him in a manger, since there was no lodging or place for them elsewhere.”
It seems almost anticlimactic, after all this time and all this journey we’ve had together, just these two lines. But then I think anticlimax is sort of the point of this season. When something looks inconsequential in the eyes of the world, that is when God is working.
At the crucial moment, Luke uses the perfect verb: “eplēsthēsan.” The days of Mary’s pregnancy “were fulfilled”: her time came, and so did God’s. It is the same verb we use for the fulfillment of prophecy and the fulfillment of the law–the pregnancy has come to its natural conclusion, and history too has come to a moment of ripeness. Now is the time.
I think we often miss things of great consequence because they are “ordinary”: something your child is trying to say to you, or a look your lover gives you, or a casual remark that someone drops about his pain. We forget that when the Bible describes miracles of enormous consequence, it does not always do so with fanfare or explosions. It doesn’t always look like magic, the way we think of it: sometimes the ordinary unfolding of human life and the supernatural fulfillment of God’s plan are one and the same.
These are two ways of looking at the same thing, two kinds of fulfillment in one moment: the natural and normal process of giving birth, the supernatural and world-changing revelation of all prophecy and scripture. They are layered onto one another, they are in union, they are one. Once you see, you can’t unsee: everything is like this.
The small ministry of love you perform in the street for a hungry man; the day you finally break down and pray; the triumph of the heavens and the singing of angels: there is no distinction between these things. For unto us a son is born, quiet and obscure, into poverty, and under his heel death will die, and by his wounds we will be healed.
We may consider most of our days quite ordinary; God does not. He assigns to them such consequence that he himself was born and died, and because of that there are no small moments or ordinary lives. Instead there is this baby, born an outcast and wrapped up in a manger, given to you for the forgiveness of sin. And the life that he brings is from everlasting, a sign of high favor, a thing of wonder even to the angels. Of his kingdom, there will be no end.