Second Sunday in Advent
What things soever were written were written for our learning: that through patience and the comfort of the scriptures we might have hope.
These words from St Paul’s epistle to the Romans state that the Scriptures were written for our learning, that through patience and the comfort of their words we might have hope. It may seem strange to us that St. Paul’s speaks of the Scriptures as though they have a single coherent message of hope. The contemporary reader of the Bible is probably more conscious of the diversity of the literature than the unity. There is the Torah, the books of the Law, which lays down the rule of life for the people of God to conform to. There are the historical writings, which recount the history of the Israelites from the their conquest of the land to the fall of the nation many centuries later. There is the poetry of the Psalms, the hymn book of the Jewish people. There are the books of the prophets, which recall the witness of those who spoke truth to power. There is the wisdom literature, which gives more general guidelines of how to live and is less historically orientated than the other books. If we include the New Testament as well the diversity would seem to be even greater. There are the gospels that tell the story of the good news of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. There is the Acts of the apostles, which recalls the earliest days of Christian history. There are the epistles, mostly those by St. Paul, which are addressed to specific problems faced in the early Church. There is finally the book of Revelation, which looks forward to that final fulfilment of God’s purposes in that new heaven and new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.
How can a single coherent message that might guide us today be found in the midst of all this diversity? A greater sense of the underlying unity of the Bible can be found when we recognise that it is not simply an artificial collection of disparate and unrelated material but the record of the history of a community through the many different stages of its development. At the beginning it is the record of the movements of a Semitic clan wandering between the great civilisations in Egypt and Mesopotamia. It then becomes a nation governed by its own kings. After many centuries the kingdoms of Israel and then of Judah decline and fall. But the people then regroups and the returned exiles organise themselves as an independent community that is neither a monarchy nor a republic. The rulers are priests, the legal code is the Torah, or Law of Moses. Finally in the New Testament, the national and geographical attachment to a single people disappears and we have the Christian Church. This is a catholic or universal community and includes among its members every tribe, nation and tongue.
The transition from the old to the new testament may seem a decisive moment of discontinuity, but St. Paul and the early Christians were emphatic that it is still the same Israel of God. The Church was indeed a new creation, but it understood itself as the climax of the history that went before. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfil them by bringing them to completion. Whether those who repented of their sins and believed and were baptised were Jews or Gentiles they were now part of the history that had gone before them as recorded in the Old Testament. Hence, St. Paul tells his Gentile converts that it is “our fathers” who passed through the Red Sea and received the Law through Moses. The Church still reads from the Hebrew Scriptures and sings from the Psalms. On Holy Saturday in the great chant called the Exultet the Church recalls God’s dealings with his people through history. “This is the night in which thou didst lead our fathers, the children of Israel, out of Egypt, and didst make them to pass dryshod through the Red Sea.” They are “our fathers” because this is now our history, for by participating in the liturgies of the Church we are taking our part in the history of our salvation. In the Canon of the Mass, the eucharistic sacrifice, in which the perfect sacrifice made once for all is re-presented to us, is placed at the climax of the sacrifices of the people of the old covenant, of righteous Abel, our forefather Abraham and the priest Melchizidek.
It is here that we find the underlying unity of the biblical message. It is not simply a record of ancient history, but the history of our salvation. It bears witness to a God who revealed himself not simply to a few enlightened souls with a taste for mysticism and contemplation, but to a people in time and history. The biblical revelation is a public, not a private matter. It takes place not in isolation from the world, but at the shifting frontiers of social change. It is in the great crises of history that many of the most decisive events take place. Some of the most significant events are the call of Abraham to leave his country and kindred in fulfilment of the promise that in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed, the Exodus from slavery in Egypt and the giving of the Law through Moses, the exile and subsequent return of the Jews, and above all in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
It scandalised people then that the supreme revelation of God should take place not in the palaces of the high and mighty in the great civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, but in a people who they looked down on as despised slaves. It was an even greater scandal when in the days when the Roman empire was at its height people were told that the incarnation had taken place in a man who had been crucified at the hands of a Roman governor in an obscure province of that empire. It scandalises people now who prefer to see religion as the cultivation of their own private religious experience of whatever sort and so repudiate the concept of a God who acts in the public realm of time and history.
In the face of this challenge it is tempting to play down the public character of the biblical witness to the revelation of God in time and history. It is much less socially marginalising to see the biblical witness as just another form of religious experience for those who are so inclined. It is certainly true that there is a great deal of diversity in the Bible and some books will inevitably appeal more to some than others. But we must not allow the diversity to lead us to fail to recognise the underlying unity of the message. It is the record of the revelation of God, first in the history of the Jewish people and then in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Let us pray that we will use this Advent season wisely and reacquaint ourselves with the history of our salvation, as it has been recorded in the biblical witness. May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing, that we may abound in hope and in the power of the Holy Ghost.