Advent is a time of waiting, longing for light to shine in the darkness. To me, there always seems to be a time-travel element to the observation of Advent. We try to use Advent to connect with the Old Testament saints, sisters and brothers who were looking for the long-awaited Immanuel. We try to connect with the future, looking forward to our Savior’s return. We try to engage with the present, acknowledging the darkness we live with and seeking the light that overcomes.
In Advent 2021, we were seeking that light in earnest as we continued to deal with large-scale issues of a global pandemic, racial injustice, and political division. Sometimes the most helpful thing to do is take a step back and realize that we’re part of a story and struggle that’s been going on for millenia. Century after century, our Christian sisters and brothers have experienced light in their own dark places and then brought that light of hope to hurting places. So we decided to spend a Wednesday night as a congregation reconnecting with those sisters and brothers who went before.
We held this service by candlelight, which gave it an air of mystery and contemplation as we heard the ancient wisdom of Athanasius, the poetry of Prudentis and Ambrose, and the legend of Catherine. We’re so thankful for a modern-day renaissance of reviving old texts and putting old poems to new tunes, allowing us to access and engage the ancient world of the early church. In dark times, it’s good to be reminded that we’re not alone, that we’re part of a bigger story than we know, and that light always shines in the darkness.
This service worked well with minimal house lighting and maximum candle lighting. The readings were led by different church members. All music was led with minimal layers and simple textures, using different combinations of a piano, an acoustic guitar, and one male and one female vocalist. As written, this service lasted about thirty-five minutes.
It is Advent. A season of hope. Of darkness waiting for light. Of promises waiting for fulfillment.
Our theology teaches us that when we worship, we do so not alone, but with an entire orchestra of voices from across all times and all places. Tonight our particular focus is on joining together with our oldest Christian brothers and sisters, learning from them, and singing with them.
As we speak and as we sing, we wait with eager expectation for the advent of our Savior, who came to the manger in Bethlehem, who is coming even today into our hearts, and who will come again to make good on all of God’s redemptive promises. Hear the Word of the Lord, who invites us to worship:
Call to Worship
The Lord is in his holy temple;
let all the earth be silent before him.
—Habakkuk 2:20 (NIV)
[Observe a full thirty seconds of silence]
[Pianist quietly plays “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”]
Our first hymn invites us to step back—from the busyness, the bustle, the noise. It invites us to keep silence with the angels and to contemplate the beauty of God, especially the beauty of God in the flesh, the mystery of Jesus’ coming. This hymn was written sometime around AD 275. It was first used in worship services in Syria, where it continues to be sung today even as we sing it now.
“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” Moultrie (trans.), LUYH 821, GtG 347
In the early fourth century, there were many questions about who Jesus was. How could he be both truly God and truly human? Many in the church were offering alternate ideas. Perhaps Jesus was just a good man who showed us the way to God. Perhaps he was an angel who disguised himself as a human being.
Athanasius wrote a long and complex work to defend the biblical and orthodox teaching that Jesus was truly God in the flesh. Throughout this book Athanasius defends the ideas of the incarnation, the virgin birth, and the deity of Christ. The book is titled simply On the Incarnation of the Word of God. This defense of doctrine became the backbone for the Nicene Creed and later the creed named after Athanasius.
In the passage from the book that we will listen to now, Athanasius tells us the reason Jesus came was to save humanity from utter annihilation, both spiritually and physically. Athanasius writes:
The readings from Athanasius are adapted from chapters 2–3 of On the Incarnation, John Behr, ed. (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996).
“What is needed to recall us from our corruption and hurt? What grace could possibly suffice to restore human beings? Who, save the Word of God Himself? The same Word that in the beginning had made all things out of nothing. This Word, and this Word alone, could bring the corrupted to incorruption.
“For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before—for no part of creation had ever been without Him who fills all things that are.
“But now, He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and self-revealing to us. He saw the human race wasting away. He saw death reigning over all in corruption. All this He saw and pitied our race. He was moved with compassion for our limitations. Rather than see us come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own.
“Perhaps He could have shown us His divine majesty in some other and better way. But there was no better way to show His sheer love for us. Without Him, the human race would have perished utterly. The supreme goodness of God would not allow this to happen.”
[Pianist quietly plays “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”]
A few years after Athanasius wrote these words in Africa, a poet in Spain named Prudentius—the greatest Christian poet of his time—took many of these ideas and put them into a poem. This poem invites us to celebrate both the divinity of Jesus and the divine love shown when Jesus took on flesh and dwelt among us.
“Of the Father’s Love Begotten” Prudentius, trans. Neale and Baker, LUYH 78, GtG 108
Later in Athanasius’s book, he tells us that Jesus, the incarnate God, is the perfect revelation of who God is. Do you want to know what God is like? Just look at Jesus! He is the Creator become a creature, the author become a character, the painter becoming the perfect image of all that he is. This is what Athanasius wrote:
“All human beings are made in the image of God, but Jesus is the Image Absolute. Through this great gift, we apprehend the Father.
“God gave humans His image, His law, the writings of the prophets, the beauties of this creation, the immensities of heaven. So great is the goodness and love of God. Yet human beings did not lift up their heads toward the truth.
“What was God to do in face of this universal hiding? Was He to keep silence? His love would not allow it! The Image of the Father came and dwelt in our midst in order to renew the human race’s knowledge of God.”
[Pianist quietly plays “Creator of the Stars of Night”]
Ambrose is known as one of the “Doctors of the Church.” This designation was given to church leaders who ministered in profound ways, often during particularly divisive times. Their leadership helped the church through danger into times of great blessing.
Ambrose is best known for two things. He is the pastor who helped Augustine come to faith in Jesus, and then mentored him as Augustine became one of the great figures of the early church. But Ambrose is also known for being a hymn writer. The way he served the church was primarily through composing hymns, giving God’s people songs to help shape them and form them in the faith. One of Ambrose’s hymns, “Creator of the Stars of Night,” encapsulates the beauty of our Creator responding to our cursed state by becoming one of us, demonstrating that incredible love of which Athanasius wrote.
“Creator of the Stars of Night” Neale (trans.), LUYH 71, GtG 84
Catherine was an Egyptian woman born in AD 287. She was the daughter of the governor of the city of Alexandria, and she dedicated herself to studying philosophy and literature. This led her to Jewish and Christian scriptures and writings. At an early age, she became a Christian. By the age of fourteen, she began teaching and preaching about Jesus and led hundreds of people to Christ. She became well known as a scholar, philosopher, preacher, and evangelist.
Although Egypt enjoyed some religious freedoms, Christians were being persecuted in many other parts of the Roman Empire. Catherine drew the attention of the emperor, and he summoned her to his court in Rome. There, Catherine publicly rebuked him for his persecution of Christians. Intrigued by her exceptional intellectual and rhetorical skills, the emperor challenged Catherine to debate fifty of the most respected pagan philosophers from around the Roman Empire. The emperor was sure that if a prominent Christian leader like Catherine could be persuaded to reject her faith, many others would follow.
Instead, through the course of the debate, Catherine spoke so eloquently and faithfully that several of the pagan philosophers declared that they would put their faith in Christ. The emperor had them beheaded immediately. Nothing would persuade Catherine to reject Jesus as her Lord. The remaining pagan philosophers could not win the debate. So the emperor ordered Catherine imprisoned.
During her imprisonment, many curious members of the emperor’s court came to visit this exceptional young woman. Catherine proclaimed the gospel, and many were converted to Christianity. Some early Christian writings claim the emperor’s own wife was one such convert.
Eventually Catherine was put to death at age eighteen. Christians in Egypt and the Middle East still celebrate her legacy with simple meals of hummus, tabbouleh, melon, and special cookies, and fireworks are set off as a reminder of Catherine’s explosive ministry even in the face of death.
[Pianist quietly plays “O Come, Redeemer of the Earth”]
Catherine is a reminder that the light of Christ continues to shine in the darkness, even during times when darkness seems to be so strong. God has always raised up women and men, young and old, to continue shining the gospel light of hope down through the ages.
Advent is a period of waiting, hoping, and longing. Truly we are “the people walking in darkness” (Isaiah 9:2, NIV). It is this journey through darkness that reminds us just how much we need the light. So we observe Advent, reminding ourselves just how much we need our Rescuer to come.
Another hymn by Ambrose, “O Come, Redeemer of the Earth,” has been one of the most-used hymn texts in the history of the church and is always sung around the time of Advent to express our longing for Jesus.
“O Come, Redeemer of the Earth” Getty
As Fleming Rutledge reminds us in her book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, “Advent begins in the dark and moves toward the light.” We do not walk in darkness without hope. The prophet Isaiah declares, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2, NIV). The gospel writer John agrees:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . . The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” (John 1:1–5, 9, NIV).
Let us close our time of worship together by singing “Phos Hilaron,” which means “O Gracious Light.” This song is widely considered to be the earliest example of a complete Christian hymn. It is often sung during the evening lighting of the lamps, the light of which reminds the Christian of the living light of Jesus Christ—God with us, Emmanuel.
“Phos Hilaron” Bridges (trans.), LUYH 393, GtG 672; Flanigan, tinyurl.com/PhosHilaron1