“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” (Romans 8:22-25)
For Christians, the joy of Christmas is an ironic one.
It is caught in the tension, as many a preacher has noted, between the “already” and the “not yet.”
Throughout the Old Testament, the faithful had already been counted among God’s chosen ones, but individually and collectively they looked forward to the coming of One who would establish an unending Kingdom of righteousness. As the New Testament book of Hebrews reflects, they were “commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.” They remained between the already and the not yet, awaiting an ultimate fulfillment.
In the early part of the New Testament, Mary’s “Magnificat” reflected her joy at learning that God would come to humanity through her. Even as she sang about the One already in her womb, who would bring down rulers and lift the humble, though, she lived under the not-yet reality of harsh and unrighteous rulers who stood on the necks of the humble.
After Jesus was born – a literal fulfillment of “God with us” – the already and the not yet remained in conflict. The righteous man Simeon declared when he held the Christ Child in the temple, “For my eyes have seen your salvation,” but that salvation was far from evident in the world around him.
When Jesus began His ministry, he repeatedly told his listeners that the Kingdom was near. As heirs of the Hebrew scriptures, they looked for a kingdom that would overthrow Israel’s enemies, but Jesus spoke to them of a kingdom that would overthrow death, the last enemy of mankind. It was for that victory, Christians believe, that he submitted to death – the ugly purpose for his beautiful birth.
Even after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, as the New Testament records, there remains the tension between the already and the not yet: While the early Church Fathers taught and preached, they were strengthened by the supposition that Jesus’ second coming was imminent.
“We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed,” Paul the apostle wrote to the Corinthians, implying that he might still be alive to see Christ’s return.
Nearly two thousand years later, his disciples still rejoice in the kingdom’s manifestations thus far, but, as the writer of Hebrews said of the ancient faithful, “they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one.”
Between all that history has revealed – the already – and all that scripture promises – the not yet – the faithful of the 21st Century still feel that longing.
NEMS Daily Journal