The Advent of Jesus marked a gigantic leap forward in the evolution of religious thought. Jesus broke old, unhealthy patterns of relating to the Divine which were rooted in our projections of fear and our tendency to transfer guilt. In ancient religious practice it was commonplace to offer up either a human or animal sacrifice in order to pacify and appease the deity. This was practically a universal pattern of ancient religious cultures—offering up the firstborn, the virgin, the best of the herd or flock to propitiate the deity.
Jesus related to and spoke about a God (Abba) of providential care and grace. His acceptance of “sinners and tax collectors,” his compassion towards the diseased, the demonized, and the destitute, his inclusion of those excluded, revealed a God who cares deeply about the oppressed, the marginalized, and the condemned of the world, a God of unconditional love.
And yet this was no mere sentimentalism. Jesus confronted and challenged the hypocrisy, rigidity, and self-righteousness within his own faith tradition, making himself a target for the wrath of the religious gatekeepers. He provoked both leaders and mainstay Israelites when he called into question their belief in a tribal, national God, contending that the God of Israel is also the God of the world. In righteous indignation he overturned the money tables in the temple, but his anger was born out of his love for God’s people.
Jesus reversed the pattern of sacrificial offering. Jesus’ death was offered up sacrificially for us, but not to God. Jesus’ Abba did not need to be bought off or propitiated. There is no salvation in redemptive violence, only redemptive suffering. Jesus became a scapegoat in order to end the terrible practice of scapegoating. He bore the hate, wrath, and cruelty of the religious, social, and political powers that be, absorbing evil in order to expose and exhaust evil, overcoming evil through love. He became a curse for us, in order to break the cycle and reveal the absurdity and evil of cursing one another. Jesus died, not to placate a wrathful God, but to reveal a forgiving God, who is committed to loving all people, even those who ignore God and fight against all that a good and gracious God stands for.
The “Advent” of God in the person of Jesus not only challenged old ways of thinking about God and old patterns of relating to God, Jesus’ Advent marked the beginning of a spiritual revolution, a conspiracy of love.
What is tragic is that in many versions of Christian faith we have moved backwards, distorting or ignoring the radical life and teachings of Jesus, interpreting his death in a paganistic way, making his gospel nothing more than a judicial transaction relating to acquital of sin-guilt and the guarantee of heaven, thus stifling the life changing influence of the salvific power of Advent.
We need to recapture the redemptive significance of Advent proclaimed in the Gospels of the New Testament. No wonder the Synoptic Gospels speak of the heavens breaking apart and the Spirit descending on Jesus in the form of a dove at his baptism by John. This was Jesus’ formal entrance into his Messianic work. Only through apocalyptic symbols could the Evangelists adequately depict the significance of what was happening. A new age, a new era, a new world was breaking in to this age of “sin and death.” Jesus would lead the way through the darkness of hate and revenge, making possible forgiveness and reconciliation.
Only an angelic proclamation to shepherds, representing all the scorned and despised ones Jesus gave preferential care for, could signal the evolutionary leap of religious thought and potential transformational impact of Jesus’ Advent: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among all humankind, with whom God is pleased” (Luke 2:14).