Advent has begun. If you’re paying attention—if you’re attending a Church that’s paying attention—its purpose is easy enough to understand. The depraved world needed a Savior. That Savior was born in Bethlehem. He submitted Himself into the vulgar crassness that rots humanity to its core. In the filth of a manger, He was born the kindliest servant of all—born to redeem the whole world from Sin. That Savior, Jesus, is coming back again in glory. When He does, it won’t be in meekness but rather in great might. He’ll come as the Judge—the Pantocrator. And just as the Creeds declare, His kingdom—all cases determined, and the one world-consuming verdict announced—will have no end. Those who are His own will be with Him in eternal glory. Those who are not won’t.
These are the converging views of Advent. Both are vistas of promise. Both bear features of warning.
Inherent to warning is preparation. Advent prepares us, which is one reason it serves as the first season in the new Church Year. One needs only to consider the Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Advent—Matthew 21:1-9—the account of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Here the Church Year’s lens is polished, and we see clearly what each event throughout the rest of the year means. Jesus came to die. Why? Because we needed God to act. We needed Him to send help. And so, He did. He sent His Son to take upon Himself human flesh. The Old Testament more than alerted us. Saint Matthew did, too. He saw its fulfillment and then reminded, “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden” (Matthew 21:5 [Zechariah 9:9]). Saint Matthew says on the First Sunday in Advent, “There He is. There’s your King. God is moving. He’s acting. In a few days—Good Friday—you’ll see the fullest measure of His concern for the world. He’ll go to war. It’ll be bloody. But He’ll win, and the whole world will be bought back from the brink of lostness.”
If you are at all familiar with what I’ve written in the past, then you’ll know it’s a regular thing that I urge Christians to view the world through this lens. Observing the world through the sacrifice of Christ is more than revealing. It’s world-altering. In an Advent sense, it’s preparatory.
For one, when we know the seriousness that caused God’s action on our behalf, we become aware of the dreadful cause’s subtle trajectories in life. I’ll give you an example that came to mind last week.
Right after Thanksgiving, the world celebrated Black Friday—a day that ushered humanity into a long weekend of buying and then buying some more. Several days of non-stop purchasing faded into Cyber Monday, another day devoted to getting and consuming more.
Now, I know the innards of these days-long events are multifaceted. Some people use them to buy for themselves everything they’ve ever wanted. Others take advantage of the discounts in preparation for Christmas gift-giving. Some do a little bit of both. Keeping these things in mind, I’m less concerned with reading the hearts of consumers as I am the order of things. The world betrays its need for a Savior when you consider the sequence of its priorities.
Over several days, we take, take, take before arriving at Giving Tuesday—a singular day set aside for charitable giving. In perspective, it’s estimated that $20.4 billion was spent this year from Black Friday to Cyber Monday. $3.1 billion was exchanged on Giving Tuesday. It also appears that end-of-year tax deductions were a “determining factor” to more than half who gave. In other words, many might not have given at all without the self-interested “taking” of personal tax benefits, making the giving much smaller.
Again, the point isn’t to judge hearts. It’s to observe. Clearly, taking outweighed giving. But now, consider the order of things.
God gives. He does this first. And even when He’s found taking, His giving far outpaces it. The wonderfulness of this generous love establishes a standard: first fruits giving (Numbers 15:20-21, 18:12-18; Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:2, 15; and the like). We give, then we take. In other words, perfect love first aims outwardly before it ever thinks to aim inwardly. Jesus is the epitome of this standard. Saint Paul calls Christ the first fruit (1 Corinthians 15:20). Saint James does the same (James 1:18). By faith, having been remade into the likeness of Jesus, Christians are made aware of this better order. And so, by the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us, we know to give before getting (2 Corinthians 5:17). We know it is better to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).
The world has reversed this, once again betraying its need for rescue. “Self” is loved before others. Sinful man takes before giving. When you think about it, this mirrors the earliest events in Eden. Eve fell into Sin. As a result, the natural order for exchanging things shifted. She first got what she wanted, and then she gave to Adam. She took before she gave. From there, her giving—and all humanity’s giving—would be naturally contaminated.
The point: our need for a Savior runs deep. Not only do we see and experience it in the more apparent horrors of life, but it’s found churning in the guts of the so-called good things we do (Isaiah 64:6). There are traces of it in our charity. Even our charity needs fixing.
If you’re paying attention, Advent’s first image—the Son of God’s Palm Sunday procession toward the cross—preaches this, too. Jesus traveled along through the streets awash in praise. Those praises so easily turned vicious. Still, Advent is preparing our hearts for celebrating this ever-determined Lord’s arrival in Bethlehem to reverse the course of this gross tendency in all of us. It does this while also preparing us for the Lord’s final return in what promises to be an eternity-piercing moment capping the complete reversal of Sin’s destruction once and for all.
It was Saint Ignatius Loyola who prayed so devoutly, “Teach us, good Lord… to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek rest; to labor and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do Thy will.”
Those are substantive words. Those are Advent words. They’re a description of the One who came to accomplish them, and they’re hoped-for fruits of faith among God’s people—a desire to give faithfully and generously, to serve before being served, to love before being loved, to give before taking. We do this while we await the Lord’s return in glory.
We can only arrive at this better view of giving through the Gospel. May this view be yours, both now and always.