Advent Origins

As I’m sure you know, Advent and Christmas have their origins in the Priscillian controversy of the fourth century.  What’s that?  You have no idea what I’m talking about?

Well, read on then so that you can be the first on your block to learn more and impress your friends!

Priscillianism was gnostic heresy.  Gnostics (the “G” is silent—no one’s sure why) were early Christians who didn’t think much of the gospels that made it into our current bible.  They had a pretty complicated view of the universe which was full of ranks of angels and demi-gods (Jesus being one of them).  

To boil it down from sap to syrup, they believed that human souls were meant to battle the forces of darkness but kind of got caught in the material world.  We are stuck here and need to be liberated because the material world is straight-up evil by definition.  

Unable to do this ourselves, Jesus came along to give us secret knowledge to free us (gnosis).  He appeared human, but really wasn’t.  Consequently, there was no way he could have been born of a human mother and no way he could have actually suffered and died on the cross.  And this not-tainted-by-anything-earthly Jesus Christ was a one-time event.  He certainly wasn’t going to show up again.  

While there are hints of Gnosticism in John’s gospel and even in some of Paul’s writing, the four gospels that we know were of no help to the gnostics because they highlighted his birth and death and contained none of the secret knowledge he imparted (at least in their view).  

As interesting as the Prscillian (Iberian peninsula) gnostics were, they were put out of commission by the Council of Sargossa in 380.  

This Council essentially disconnected the gnostic’s car battery by saying that the idea of a dualistic separation between light and darkness, body and spirit is false.  

To proof it, they formalized Advent and Christmas.

This early version of Advent held that the first two weeks of the season were to focus on the Second Coming of Christ.  This rubbed the gnostic’s noses in a belief they wanted nothing to do with.  It is also why the first few lectionary texts for Advent are, to this day, filled with apocalyptic writings.

The second two weeks of Advent were then focused on the incarnation.  The incarnation is the idea that, in Jesus Christ, the divine and human became one.  The Council reiterated that Jesus was fully divine (you got that part right, you gnostics) but he was also fully HUMAN (you swung and missed on that part).

It is a shame that we have so little of early Christian gnostic writings.  It is also a shame that the early church “fathers” clamped down so hard on these so-called “heresies” because their doing so still limits our world view as Christians.

Still, the power of these early theological teachings still rings true: Jesus was one of us.  Being divine didn’t prevent him from experiencing all of the joy and pain of human existence.  The merger, the incarnation, of divine and human, of heaven and earth, in his person gives us a companion on our earthly journey who knows us as we are and guides us to what awaits us.  He is the son of God but also our very human brother.

Gnosticism is interesting, for sure.  But a Jesus who was never really human leaves you with nothing to grab on to.

Advent and Christmas drive home the truth that because the dualities divine and human come together in Jesus Christ, we are never alone.

And that’s something worth celebrating!

In Christ,

–Rev. Dominic