O God, who looked on us when we had fallen down into death, and resolved to redeem us by the Advent of your only begotten Son; we beg you, that those who confess his glorious Incarnation may also be admitted to the fellowship of their Redeemer, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.- St. Ambrose (339-397), Bishop of Milan
This prayer fits so well with some more familiar sentiments from songs we are used to singing for Advent and Christmas.
Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.- Charles Wesley, 1744
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel.
- Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)
At first glance these prayers - for that is also what the song lyrics are - appear to be asking for something that, if you are a Christian, has already happened. And yet surely salvation is not something we pray for once, as believers, and then simply thank God for from that point on, assuming it to be finished. Salvation certainly is something we repeatedly thank God for, in faith, as we continually look backward in history to Christ's incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension for us. There is a definite sense in which our salvation is accomplished and finished. Yet it is also something we continually look to God for now, today, as Christ reigns and brings all things into submission to God. And we pray and ask God for future salvation as well, a future final consummation of all things, a completion of the reconciling work of Christ, the final redemption and restoration of all things that have been marred by sin, death and the curse. Salvation has yet to work out into every corner of the world. Indeed, salvation has yet to work itself out into every corner of our hearts and lives.
Salvation is in God's plan as it has unfolded in history past; in his working now, in the present, in us and in through the church in the world; and in the future completion of Christ's saving work with the consummation of the new heavens and new earth, for which we hope and pray. Salvation is past, present and future.
As the church fathers sometimes said, there are three advents of Christ. His first advent was his birth by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary to announce the gospel and atone for sin. His future coming again to judge the living and the dead and to bring his kingdom in fullness is the second advent we look forward to in faith and pray for in hope. But between those two advents, there is a third advent for every believer, by which Christ comes to dwell in those who look to him and who, in faith, trust him for salvation. This happens on a personal level when the gospel is heard and Christ is received in loving faith.
It is possible to reject this advent, however. Often when the gospel announcement of Christ comes to people whose lives are too full of other things, too full of stuff, too full of self, he gets rejected and the doors of people's hearts are closed to him. Like the inn at Bethlehem, it still happens that many turn Christ away and give the excuse that there is just no room for him. When the opportunity of this personal advent is rejected, neither Christ's first or second advent will be of any lasting or saving benefit for the one who turns him away at the door.
It was good for our family to ponder these things in our hearts this past Advent and Christmas season.