Advent is a time of rich liturgical and popular traditions in the western churches, especially in the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches. But it is a much undeveloped liturgical time in the eastern churches, where it is primarily observed as a fasting season, probably thanks to the disproportionate influence of monastics in the evolution of the Orthodox tradition. Our loss, I guess one can say. In fact, the Orthodox liturgical tradition has only one hymn that could be accurately called an Advent hymn – and it is the Kontakion we sing in the season before Christmas:
Ἡ Παρθένος σήμερον, τὸν προαιώνιον Λόγον, ἐν Σπηλαίῳ ἔρχεται, ἀποτεκεῖν ἀπορρήτως. Χόρευε ἡ οἰκουμένη ἀκουτισθεῖσα, δόξασον μετὰ Ἀγγέλων καὶ τῶν Ποιμένων, βουληθέντα ἐποφθῆναι, παιδίον νέον, τὸν πρὸ αἰώνων Θεόν.
Today the Virgin comes to the manger to give birth in a mystery to him who is the eternal Word. Hear this and rejoice all the earth and glorify with the angels and the shepherds; for the pre-eternal God now comes to us as a new child.
It is a beautiful hymn, expressing not only the anticipated joy but also the profound theology of the Logos, the Word. It comes from the opening 18 verses of the Gospel of John:
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων· καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν….Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας….θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε· μονογενὴς υἱός [θεὸς] ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it….And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us, full of grace and truth; and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father….No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten Son [God], who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.
Notice the textual variation in the last sentence, indicated by the square brackets? The majority of manuscripts have μονογενὴς υἱός, the only-begotten Son. But two of the earliest papyrus manuscripts that we possess (from around 200 AD), 𝔓66 and 𝔓75, and some other early manuscripts read θεός instead of υἱός. Scholars now speculate that θεός was replaced by υἱός in later manuscripts to bring John’s statement more in line with standard trinitarian language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But it is very likely that John did indeed write θεός to wrap up this majestic opening of his gospel, in which he unveils the Logos in his full divine and cosmic glory.
The police drama Columbo was very popular in the 1970s. Unlike other police dramas, it showed the crime and the perpetrator at the beginning of each episode. So we the viewers knew whodunnit before Columbo, brilliantly played by Peter Falk, came on to the scene, with his usual battered coat.
That’s something like what John did in the opening of his gospel: he told us up front who he is going to reveal to us. The Advent Kontakion does something similar. It tells us up front, it’s the Logos who is coming into the world. It is the human manifestation of the Logos that Christmas is all about. It is not Santa, it is not just my personal Lord and Saviour. It is the Word of God – the reason for all creation, the reason why we have life, the reason why there is light in the world, even if sometimes the darkness seems to prevail. But “the darkness has not overcome it,” John tells us.
John’s use of the Logos locates his understanding of Jesus in the Hebrew scriptures, the dabar yhwh; but also in the Greek philosophical tradition of the Logos going all the way back to Heraclitus (535-475 BC). Thus, Logos helped John combine Hebrew and Greek insights into the origin, purpose and cosmic scale of our existence! Look at the map below, compiled by astronomers, showing our neighbourhood of the universe. Click it once and click it again to expand it and fill your computer screen. How can you look at the scale and movements of the galaxies and not believe that there is Logos behind the magnificent complexity and marvel of the universe?
This cosmological map helps me understand Jesus better than any icon does. I see the cosmic scale of God’s creative and redemptive purposes. And I am in there too, in that section called the Milky Way; and I am part of the big picture. We are part of the big picture! Don’t reduce Jesus to be your little saviour. His is an ecumenical, cosmic birth. The οἰκουμένη rejoices and dances with the angels and the shepherds – because a new child is born, the pre-eternal God.
We have a hard time conceiving infinity. Think about pi, π. (See excellent Wikipedia article.) π is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. It is usually represented as 3.14; but in actual fact, π can be expanded to an infinite number of decimal places. It just goes on and on as we increase the precision of calculation:
π = 3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399375105820974944592……
How far do you go in contemplating infinity, eternity? And what lies beyond infinity, beyond eternity? The mind stops; we can’t conceive the inconceivable. So in our hymnography we don’t even use words like “eternal” to speak of God the Word: he is “pre-eternal” – before and beyond eternity!
Christmas is the profound mystery of the pre-eternal God crashing into our universe, into what he created. We are his, the entire οἰκουμένη is his, all creation is his. “Lord save your people and bless your inheritance,” we sing in one of our most popular hymns. The earth is his inheritance. It belongs to him, and he comes into his inheritance. He comes into his own, even though his own more often reject him than welcome him. We reject him when we reject his work, his inheritance, our place in the cosmos. We reject him when we misuse his inheritance, when we treat it as our own possession. What happened 2,000 years ago is like the opening of a Columbo episode. It told us everything we need to know about the story of Jesus down through the ages. It all played out there – and it has played out in identical ways for 20 more centuries. Let us not be among those who reject him. Let us be among those who welcome him – not just as an excuse for mindless shopping. Let us welcome him as the source of truth, life and love. The Word is God…and the Word became flesh.