Once upon a time, there was a season in the church year known as “Advent.” The word comes to us from the Latin for “coming.” The purpose of the season was to anticipate; the coming of Christ to earth; it was a season that focused on waiting.
Advent is the season when we meditate on experiences of waiting and silence in the Scriptures. By coming to terms with the waiting that we see in Scripture, we prepare our souls for those moments when God seems silent in our own lives. One of the ways we prepare ourselves for this silence is by recognizing that, even when we struggle with the silence of God, we are not alone. In the silence, we find ourselves in the company of past prophets who glimpsed God’s glory but who died before they saw God’s plans fulfilled. “All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance” (Hebrews 11:13).Continue reading.
Once upon a time, there was a season in the church year known as “Advent.” The word comes to us from the Latin for “coming.” The purpose of the season was to look toward the coming of Christ to earth; it was a season that focused on waiting.
As early as the fourth century A.D., Christians fasted during this season and ended their fasts with celebrations either of the arrival of the wise men or of the baptism of Jesus. For many Christians today, the most familiar sign of Advent is the lighting of candles—two purple candles, followed by a pink and then another purple—on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.
Advent has fallen on hard times, though. In the Protestant and free-church traditions, the loss is understandable, though no less lamentable; Baptists in particular tend to be quite suspicious of anything with origins in ancient or medieval tradition. When I instituted Advent celebrations as a pastor in a Baptist church, I was asked more times than I care to recall, “Don’t Catholics do that?”—as if that automatically prohibited us from considering such a practice.
Yet, even in congregations that more consciously echo the ancient rhythms of the church’s life, the meaning of Advent seems in danger of being misplaced. By the closing week of November, any sense of waiting has been eclipsed by the crèche in the lobby, the tannenbaum in the hall, and the list of Christmas parties in the church newsletter.
The Awkward Intrusion of Advent
Why this loss of Advent as a distinct season of the Christian year?.
Perhaps it’s because, for believers no less than non-believers, our calendars are dominated not by the venerable rhythms of redemption but by the swifter currents of consumerism and efficiency. The microwave saves us from waiting for soup to simmer on the stove, credit cards redeem us from waiting on a paycheck to make our purchases, and this backward extension of the Christmas season liberates us from having to deal with the awkward lull of Advent. And so, before the last unpurchased Halloween costume has made it back to the warehouse, halls and malls are decked with plastic holly and crimson ribbon. Thanksgiving provides a pre-Christmas test run on basting turkeys and tolerating relatives—but the primary function of Thanksgiving increasingly seems to be to supply a convenient time to gather for that orgy of consumption and consumer debt known as Black Friday.
Why this Advent-free leap from All Hallow’s Eve to Christmas Eve?
Perhaps because Christmas is about celebration, and celebrations can be re-construed to move products off the shelves. Advent is about waiting, and waiting contributes little to the gross domestic product.
In a religious milieu that has fixated itself on using Jesus to provide seekers with their most convenient lives here and now, Advent is a particularly awkward intrusion. Advent links our hearts with those of ancient prophets who pined for a long-promised Messiah but who passed away long before his arrival. In the process, Advent reminds us that we too are waiting.
Even on this side of Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, there is brokenness in our world that no cart full of Black Friday bargains can fix; there is hunger in our souls that no plateful of pumpkin custard can fill; there is twistedness in our hearts that no terrestrial hand can touch. “The whole creation,” the apostle Paul declared, “has been groaning together for redemption.”
In Advent, Christians embrace the groaning and recognize it not as hopeless whimpering over the paucity of the present moment but as expectant yearning for a divine banquet that Jesus is preparing for us even now. In Advent, the church admits, as poet R.S. Thomas has put it, that “the meaning is in the waiting.” And what we await is a final Advent that is yet to come. Just as the ancient Israelites waited for the coming of the Messiah in flesh, we await the consummation of the good news through the Messiah’s return in glory. In Advent, believers confess that the infant who drew his first ragged breath between a virgin’s knees has yet to speak his final word.
Celebrating the Waiting
I am not contending that lighting a few pink and purple candles will somehow, in and of themselves, trigger a renaissance of patience or a yearning for the presence of Christ. Neither am I suggesting that everyone should dismantle their yuletide trees and mute every carol until Christmas morning. But I know that I need this yearly reminder of the meaningfulness of waiting—and I do not believe that I am alone.
Left to myself, I turn too quickly from the God of the gospel and kiss the feet of the gods of efficiency and convenience—false gods that proclaim waiting a waste, a “killing of time.” Advent reminds me that time is far too precious to be killed, even when that time is spent waiting. Advent is a proclamation of the sufficiency of Christ through the discipline of waiting.
So, this Advent season, consider how your family might celebrate the discipline of waiting. Set aside a few moments each evening to consider biblical texts that tell about the first and second comings of Jesus. Or select a book for the month—maybe a novel that guides your family to glimpse both the beauty and the brokenness of God’s creation—then turn off the television each night and take time to read to one another. Or work together to list some ways that the world is broken; then, even as you long for the return of Jesus to make the world right, recognize that God’s work in the world is already underway. God is making the world new even now through the power of the resurrection among his people; so, plan a family activity that joins in God’s redeeming work by setting something right or relieving human suffering in your neighborhood. Whatever you do, let it be a reminder that, because God has promised to make the world new and has vouchsafed this promise through an empty tomb, no moment of waiting is meaningless. Every passing instant is pregnant with wonder and beauty and glory.
When I recall that there is meaning even in times of waiting, the question that occupies my mind as I stand in line at the supermarket is not whether I’ve chosen the quickest line but how I might invest this waiting in something weightier than my own to-do list.
When I sit in traffic, I am not merely anticipating a shift of color from red to green; I am awaiting the coming of Christ, and there is meaning in this waiting.
When I walk hand-in-hand with a dawdling child who stands in awe of common robins and random twigs, there is every reason to join this child in worship, for there is holiness in her waiting.
Malcolm Muggeridge once suggested that “all happenings, great and small, are parables by which God speaks. The art of life is to get the message.” Advent reminds us to listen for the message that God is speaking, even in the waiting.
If you need some music to help your family to celebrate Advent, download “Advent Songs.”
It’s an accusation that’s been around a long time.
Even in ancient times, critics of Christianity noticed some parallels between Christian beliefs and pre-Christian myths. In the late second century, a pagan philosopher named Celsus charged, “The Christians have used the myths of Danae and the Melanippe, of the Auge and Antiope in fabricating this story of virgin birth!” In more recent times, skeptical scholars such as Marvin Meyer and Robert Price have claimed close connections between the resurrection of Jesus and the myths of dying and rising deities that marked many pagan mystery religions.
In the simplest possible terms, here’s what these critics contend: The most marvelous claims in the Gospels—a miraculous birth, for example, as well as the idea of a deity who dies and rises again—are paralleled in pagan religions that predate Christianity; therefore, early Christians must have fabricated these miracles based on their knowledge of pre-Christian religions.
To be sure, there are some surface-level similarities between ancient myths and certain events in the Gospels. Long before the first century A.D., the myths of Egyptians deities such as Osiris, Adonis, Attis, and Horus included tales of death and rebirth. The Persians venerated Mithras, a deity who (according to some recent claims) was born of a virgin and who died and rose Fain. Sacramental bread and the fruit of the vine make appearances in a few mystery cults as well.
So why should anyone see Jesus as being distinct from the pagan gods? Could it be that the New Testament stories of Jesus represent the fictive myth of an ancient mystery cult that’s survived for two thousand years? Or is there something different about the accounts of Jesus’ time on planet earth?
:: The Pagan Parallels Aren’t Particularly Parallel ::
In the first place, it’s important to be aware that most of these supposed pagan parallels aren’t nearly as parallel as the skeptics suppose. When the actual sources behind the pagan myths are closely examined, the supposed parallels have little in common with the New Testament narratives.
For example, there are dying and rising gods in some earlier religions—but these deities died and arose each year, certainly not the same pattern as Jesus’s once-for-all sacrifice for the sake of others. And the pagan myths of miraculous births are closer to divine impregnation—a mortal woman conceives a child as a result of sexual relations with a god—than to the virginal conception described in the Gospel According to Matthew and Luke.
To exemplify how these supposed parallels aren’t nearly as parallel as the critics claim, let’s take a look at one particular mystery-cult myth that’s often presented as a predecessor to the New Testament, the myth of Mithras.
So what of Mithras’ miraculous birth? In the ancient sources that describe the birth of Mithras, Mithras was birthed from solid stone, and he got stuck on the way out. Some nearby persons in a field pulled him from the stone, which left a cave behind him. Yet some writers continue to connect this birth to the birth of Jesus in a stable with shepherds arriving soon afterward. A few critics even refer to this birth of Mithras as a “virgin birth”! I guess that birth from a rock is sort of a virgin birth. But how can you tell if a rock is a virgin, anyway? And how precisely do rocks lose their virginity? Parallels of this sort are too vague and too dissimilar to support the claim that Christians borrowed their beliefs from pagans of previous generations.
James Tabor, a professor at University of North Carolina, doesn’t believe in the virginal conception of Jesus, and he denies that Jesus could have risen from the dead. Yet even he sees how radically the birth of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels differs from the supposed pagan parallels:
When you read the accounts of Mary’s unsuspected pregnancy, what is particularly notable … is an underlying tone of realism that runs through the narratives. These seem to be real people, living in real times and places. In contrast the birth stories in Greco-Roman literature have a decidedly legendary flavor to them. For example, in Plutarch’s account of the birth of Alexander the Great, mother Olympias got pregnant from a snake; it was announced by a bolt of lightning that sealed her womb so that her husband Philip could not have sex with her. Granted, both Matthew and Luke include dreams and visions of angels but the core story itself—that of a man who discovers that his bride-to-be is pregnant and knows he is not the father—has a realistic and thoroughly human quality to it. The narrative, despite its miraculous elements, “rings true.”
:: Supposed Parallels and Significant Problems When Comparing Jesus and Mithras ::
Supposed parallel: Mithras had twelve followers.
Significant problem: One piece of ancient artwork depicts Mithras surrounded by twelve faces, but there is no evidence that these were “disciples” of Mithras. In fact, Mithras had only two companions, Albederan and Antares.
Supposed parallel: Mithras was identified as a lion and a lamb.
Significant problem: There is no surviving evidence for the connection of Mithras to a lamb. Mithras was identified as a lion. However that imagery for a royal ruler existed among the Israelites (Genesis 49:9) several centuries prior to the emergence of any Mithraic myth; the New Testament writers were using familiar Jewish imagery when they depicted Jesus as a lion.
Supposed parallel: Mithras initiated a meal in which the terminology of “body and blood” were used.
Significant problem: The earliest evidence of such terminology in the context of Mithraism is from the mid-second century—nearly one hundred years after the Gospels were written. In this instance, it is far more likely that Mithraism borrowed from Christian practice.
Supposed parallel: Mithras sacrificed himself for the sake of others.
Significant problem: Mithras is frequently depicted in the act of sacrificing a bull—but Mithras himself never becomes the sacrifice.
Supposed parallel: Mithras rose from the dead on the third day; his followers celebrated his resurrection each year.
Significant problem: There is no surviving evidence from the pre-Christian era for a resurrection of Mithras on the third day. Because of his association with the sun, it is possible that followers of Mithras celebrated a renewal or rebirth each year.
Supposed parallel: The resurrection of Mithras was celebrated on Sunday.
Significant problem: There is no surviving evidence from the pre-Christian era for a celebration of a resurrection of Mithras on the first day of the week, though the followers of Mithras—and of other sun-related deities—did worship their gods on Sunday. The reason for the emphasis on “the first day of the week” in the New Testament Gospels was, however, more closely tied to the fact that, in Genesis 1, God’s work of creation began on the first day. The implication was that, through the resurrection of Jesus, God was initiating a new beginning, a re-creation of his world.
:: Claims of Parallels in Pagan Sources Confuse the Historical Claims of the New Testament with Later Christian Practices ::
What’s more, proponents of these parallels consistently conflate later Christian traditions with what’s found in the Gospels. It’s true, for example, that pagan festivals occurred around the time when Christians later celebrated Christmas—but the New Testament documents never suggest a date for the birth of Jesus in the first place! The identification of a date to celebrate Christmas occurred centuries after the time of Jesus; Christians probably arrived at a date near the winter solstice because of an early tradition that Jesus was conceived on the same date that he died, and nine months after Passover landed the birth of Jesus in late December. In any case, since the New Testament makes no claims regarding the date of Jesus’ birth, the celebration of Christmas is irrelevant when it comes to a discussion of whether the New Testament description of Jesus’ birth is rooted in real historical events.
The same holds true when it comes to connections between pagan fertility festivals and later Easter celebrations. The term “Easter” comes from “Ishtar,” a Sumerian goddess who died, arose, and ascended, and several familiar Easter motifs originated in pagan fertility cults. Yet, except for a mistranslation in Acts 12:4 in the King James Version, no New Testament text even mentions Easter! The pagan roots of later Easter imagery have nothing to do with the historicity of the Gospels.
Likewise, later Christian art incorporated both Egyptian and Mithraic motifs, especially when depicting Jesus and his mother. Yet later imitations of pagan themes among Christian painters has nothing to do with whether the events in the New Testament actually occurred. It simply means that Christians artists could have been a bit more creative when choosing sources for their inspiration.
:: What If Some Pagan Parallels Did Exist? ::
Let’s suppose for a moment, though, that some patterns that were present in the life of Jesus could be pinpointed in some previous religion. Would this weaken the historical foundations of the Christian faith, as critics claim?
The real question isn’t, “Are there similarities between the New Testament’s descriptions of Jesus and some previous religious practices?” Perhaps there are—although I must admit that every ancient parallel I’ve examined has turned out to be vague and weak when examined in its original context.
The crucial question is, “Did the events described in the New Testament actually occur?”—and the answer to this question doesn’t depend on parallels in pagan practices.
Parallels in other ancient religions neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the New Testament documents. They simply demonstrate the common expectations of people in the first century A.D. Even if some clear parallel did exist between the story of Jesus and previous religious expectations, this wouldn’t warrant the belief that the apostle Paul or the authors of the New Testament Gospels “borrowed” these tenets from other faiths. It would mean that, when God dropped in on the human race, he chose to reveal himself in ways that the people in that particular culture could comprehend. If that’s indeed the case, it would merely mean that the myths of dying gods and miraculous births are rooted in longings that run deeper than human imagination; although the pagan religions twisted and distorted these motifs, they are rooted in a God-given yearning for redemption through sacrifice that makes the world right and new. C.S. Lewis addressed this possibility with these words:
In the New Testament, the thing really happens. The Dying God really appears—as a historical Person, living in a definite place and time. … The old myth of the Dying God … comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We must not be nervous about “parallels” [in other religions] … : they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.
When it comes to parallels between the New Testament story of Jesus and the myths of pagan gods, the supposed connections are not sufficiently parallel to claim that Christian faith is borrowed. Even if some parallels were indisputable, the parallels merely mean that God worked out his plan in a manner that matched the context within which “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us” (John 1:18).
So what should you do the next time someone pulls out a pagan parallel?
(1) Locate the primary source. With the rarest of exceptions, the primary sources—that is to say, the actual ancient texts that describe the pagan practices—do not include any real parallels to the New Testament.
(2) Determine whether the supposed parallel precedes or succeeds the New Testament. Every text in the New Testament was in circulation no later than the late first century A.D. If the pagan parallel is from a text that was written later than the first century A.D., the New Testament writers obviously couldn’t have borrowed their information from that text.
(3) Determine whether the supposed pagan parallel connects to the New Testament or to later Christian traditions. Connections between pagan practices and later patterns in Christian worship or holiday celebrations may be interesting—but these links have nothing to do with whether the New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus are historically accurate.
R. Beck, The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire (New York: Oxford, 2006) 209-210.
M. Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras (New York: Routledge, 2000) 68-165.
C.S. Lewis, “Answers to Questions on Christianity” and “Myth Became Fact,” in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970) 58, 66.
Origen of Alexandria, “Contra Celsum,” ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graecae 11 (Paris: Lutetiae Parisiorum, 1857-1866) 37.
T. Snyder, Myth Conceptions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995).
Today, St. Nicholas is mostly known as a paunchy old geezer who spends one night each year breaking into people’s houses and stealing cookies before escaping to an Arctic hideaway where elves do his work for him.
Kind of creepy when you think about it.
The good news is that none of this was what the real St. Nicholas—a church leader named Nicholas of Myra—was known for. He was best known in his own day as a defender of the biblical truth that Jesus was fully God and fully man.
According to some reports, Nicholas of Myra may even have been present when more than three hundred church leaders gathered in the village of Nicaea to deal with a false teacher named Arius of Alexandria. There, the church leaders clearly rejected a popular claim that there had been a point when the Son of God had not existed.
And, according to one version of the events, Santa Claus may even have voted against Arius’s claims with something a bit stronger than his voice.
Learn more about Nicholas of Myra and the Council of Nicaea by watching this: “The Real St. Nicholas”
Someone sent me the picture at the top but I can no longer recall or locate the original source. If anyone knows the source, please let me know so that I can give appropriate credit.