If there is one enduring 21st century Advent message, it is that Jesus, whether or not one considers him divine or even as having existed, altered the way humans relate to the attributes commonly ascribed to God.
Yes, it’s an unorthodox message, I know, but one that is as relevant to unorthodox Christians and die-hard skeptics and even atheists as it is to confirmed Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox believers.
Advent represents the bridging of a great conceptual divide that had persisted throughout much of human history.
Humans beings across centuries and cultures have struggled with the nature of transcendence, which has often been expressed in the form of a high god. But as religious historian Karen Armstrong has stressed in her writings, particularly A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, humans invariably encountered a yawning conceptual chasm. This high god seemed to be so exalted and remote that people, out of a sense of futility, often filled this vast space between themselves and this exalted being with lesser, more human-like deities.
Jewish monotheism changed this significantly, but even then the gulf between human beings and God remained immense, unfathomable, and unbridgeable. The name God remained so sacred that it could not even be uttered.
One of the effects of Jesus’ life was to bridge this immense divide by enabling ordinary humans to internalize the godly attributes of love, tolerance and charity – to internalize them, to make them their own.
In a real sense, the attributes of God — the Kingdom of God — were brought down to earth for the edification of ordinary human beings
It is easy to evince doubt about God in the 21st century – and, for that matter, doubt about the existence of a obscure carpenter from Galilee whom millions steadfastly maintain is God. But at this stage in my life, formal belief in the Advent story isn’t essential for me. But the advent message is.
The Advent marks an entry point in human history, the first page of the most remarkable chapter in the human journey, one that continues to unfold after more than 2,000 years.
For me, Advent signifies how the Jesus account worked to incorporate, however imperfectly, the attributes of God into every facet of my being as well as those of hundreds of millions of other mortals across 2,000 years of human striving, affirming, suffering, building, destroying, living and dying.
To borrow Paul Tillich’s oft-repeated phrase, because of Jesus of Nazareth, God now constitutes the “ground of being” for me and countless millions of human beings.
And the internalization of these attributes has conferred manifold benefits on humanity.
The more we humans reflect on those attributes, the more compelled we feel to act on them to assuage human alienation and suffering. In the centuries following Advent, this deep-felt desire to alleviate suffering has led to the formulation of just war doctrine, the abolition of slavery, the institution of child labor laws, the liberation of women, and the increasingly universal fixation on social justice.
And all of this arguably would not have been possible but for the existence of an obscure artisan in a remote part of the Roman Empire who, by bridging the great divide between God and man, secured the attributes of God for humanity.