Last time, we talked about Advent in the context of the Church Calendar. This time, we will talk about Advent from the perspective of the first-century Jews, who were waiting for a Deliverer.
History is written by the victors. We learn of the Pilgrims founding settlements of liberty in the New World, of William the Conqueror establishing the English throne in 1066, and of Rome bringing order and civilization to the dark, barbarian world. Less prominently studied are the Pequot and Wampanoag tribes isolated and extinguished through American colonial expansion, or the various Saxon kingdoms plundered by William’s Norman armies, or the salted destruction of cities that dared resist Rome’s supremacy. Even less visible are accounts of the tribal wars before the colonists arrived, or the Saxon conquest of the Britons before William conquered, or the Etruscan desolation of Greek colonies in Italy before Rome rose. History is a never-ending cycle of violence, of dominance, subjugation, revenge, and death—but the victors are able to cast themselves as heroes. They create noble myths that elevate their nation and empire, while hiding the ugly violence that is the foundation of it all.
How interesting, then, that the Hebrew Scriptures tell the story of a people who are perpetually victimized. Ancient Israel was a nation of nomads and slaves, a nation consistently conquered by her bigger, more powerful neighbors. Even when Israel was at the height of her glory, under Solomon, she was merely a pale shadow of Assyria, a poor man’s copy of Egypt. And Israel’s God not only seemed indifferent to Israel’s imperial ambitions—at times, He seemed actively opposed to them. He reluctantly assented to Israel’s desire for a king. He opposed a Census that would enable Israel’s rulers to count its fighting strength. He even ordered that Israel refrain from building chariots or stables, which prevented the creation of horse-mounted cavalry—the jets and tanks of the ancient world.
And then, a people who began their national life as slaves liberated from Egypt found themselves living their worst nightmare when they were conquered and brought into slavery again. First the northern nation of Israel was conquered by Assyria, and scattered across the world. Next the southern nation of Judah was conquered by Babylon, and the Jewish people were sent as captives to that city. Eventually, some Jews were allowed to return to their homeland, but they were a sad remnant of a remnant of a proud people who believed themselves chosen by God. Even after their return, they remained under foreign occupation and frequently suffered national humiliation. After the Babylonians came the Persians, and after the Persians the Greeks, and after the Greeks the Romans. The Jews longed for God to raise up a Deliverer who would reestablish the throne of David.
It is in this context that we must understand Mary’s “Revolutionary Carol.” Consider Mary’s triumphant song in Luke 1. Here is a poor Jewish maiden, whose people have labored under Roman occupation and foreign humiliation. She has been promised that her son is the long-expected Messianic king who will liberate her people. Finally, justice for the poor! Finally, redemption for Israel!
46 My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
With the arrival of Jesus, God fulfilled His promise to lift up the lowly, and bring down the powerful from their thrones. Through the Cross, He forged a new foundation for human civilization, one not based on the violence of brother against brother, but based on the co-suffering love of Christ for a world that hated Him. Through the Resurrection, we are given a promise that the Love of Christ will triumph, and that even if our radical acts of service lead to our deaths by the powers of this world, on the Last Day we will be raised as more than conquerors. Through the Spirit, we are given the patience to endure trials and hardships until the end, when God will complete the project launched in Christ and Reconcile All Things to Himself.
But until then, we wait. We wait in a world where we declare Jesus’ reign defiantly, even as the dark powers of the world continue to wreak havoc on God’s good Creation, and even as death continues to claim the ones we love dearest. We wait, longing for the Return of the King who will put a final end to death, and disease, and war, and all the strifes of this present age. We wait, like Mary, trusting in God’s promise that He will help His servants in remembrance of His mercy, and that God’s mercy is from generation to generation.