Advent, days 8 & 9: Grace
Advent could rightly be viewed as a discipline of active remembrance.
Advent participation moves us into confrontation with our world. This happens through a developing grasp of how costly grace contradicts the instant gratification on sale everywhere at this time of year (primarily in Western communities, for the Christian and the Atheist). Although buying and selling is not in and of itself a bad thing.Profit and loss terminology can drive our understanding of the personal and communal cost and benefit embedded within the Gospels.
Flooding our considerations with more intensity than at any other time of year, the concepts of cost and benefit can help us to identify with the participants of the retelling.
Throughout the Christmas season parents, among others, realise the significance of cost.
Cost dictates whether or not it we will feel the benefits of Christmas. These may include: a few days off work, financial bonuses from corporate gifts or overtime, loss of work due to local or global economic shifts etc. Traditionally, Christmas is a time to be proud of those well-earned special gifts – thoughtfully purchased at a cost – through hard-work, sacrifice, and love. Generally we are taught that it is a time to bathe in the ”joy of our giving” . The result is that grace can become separated from any consideration about the cost of God’s giving; saying to ourselves that those considerations are for Easter, not Christmas.
In short, the cost of our giving can dictate our entire experience of the event. Cost and benefit becomes the measure of our joy. These economic terms usually focus more on the human efforts to summon happiness [not joy] on Christmas day, rather than on the special cause and purpose of our remembrance. Along with the subsequent celebrations, and the preparations for it, money can end up determining the momentum of our joy, our remembrance, and our willingness to give.
However, the terms cost and benefit, are correlated to the advent endeavour. This is because strange story of advent is not about a stranger[i]. It is about the God who gave advance knowledge of His coming as-one-of-us. The New Testament leans on the language of cost and benefit. It makes the point that because of Jesus; grace: ‘you were bought at a great price’ (1 Cor.6:20, ESV)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:
‘That which has cost God much cannot be cheap for us…Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves’[ii]
Why, is it easy to reduce grace to a low-cost-at -no-cost-to-us framework?
The grand Advent discipline of self-examination[iii], reflection, and gratitude, summons us to remember that we are participants with God and yet, ‘we cannot bestow His grace upon ourselves’ (Bonhoeffer 1937:4 paraphrased).
I agree with James K. Smith when he suggests that:
‘the Christian observation of Advent marks a different orientation to time, particularly when it is recognised that Advent is a season for repentance’ (2009: 156)[iv]
What has cost God much cannot be cheap for us is no random thought.
Behind this lies a broken awareness about the reality of Jesus the Christ. Bonhoeffer’s message warns against the act of cheapening grace.
In order to map this out further, we could debate the definition of cheap comments in terms of messages communicated via the internet. For example: comments are valuable and people are free to comment. Yet, being free to comment does not mean we are free to comment cheaply.
Cheap comments are passive aggressive “words-on-target”. Cheap comments are essentially ‘’cheap shots’’ at disqualifying the message through generalisation and personal attacks on the messenger. These can be viewed in the pseudo-application[v] of debating tools such as ad hominem; tu quoque: an attempt to label the messenger as hypocritical; or dismissing the message by reducing the argument to the absurd, such as reductio ad absurdum.
Likewise, cheap grace, for Christians and for the world, falls into these categories and can be labelled as logical and informal fallacies.
Bonhoeffer’s argument against the abuse of grace is summed up as:
- Costly Grace requests (if not requires) a response to God’s action on our behalf
- Cheap grace denies humanity the opportunity to respond.
- Because grace is ‘costly and it calls us to follow Jesus Christ’[vi]
Advent could rightly be viewed as a discipline of active remembrance. This means to reflect and respond to the fact that that ‘which has cost God much cannot be cheap for us’
The cognitive curiosity and obedience of the shepherds and wise men lead them to an outhouse shelter for animals.
…‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined’ (Isaiah 9:2, ESV).
Their response to grace meets that of Joseph, Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, and the New Testament writers who in their own understanding did not apply a concept of God to Jesus, but learnt that through His birth, life, death and resurrection[vii]. God had indeed made Himself known.
‘…they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us)’ (Mt.1:23, ESV)
They were participants in having God bestow grace them. They did not bestow grace upon themselves.
The justification of the sinner comes with the ‘obligation of discipleship’[viii].
[i] Barth, K. 1938 The Doctrine of the Word of God, CD.1:2:17, Hendrickson Publishers
[ii] Bonhoeffer, D.1937 The Cost of Discipleship SCM Classics, p.5
[iii] Smith, J.K.A, 2009 Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural formation, Baker Academic
[iv] Ibid, p.156
[v] The colloquial term is ‘’trolling’’.
[vi] Bonhoeffer, D.1937 The Cost of Discipleship SCM Classics, p.5
[vii] Barth, K. 1938 The Doctrine of the Word of God, CD.1:2:17, Hendrickson Publishers
[viii] Bonhoeffer, D.1937 The Cost of Discipleship SCM Classics, p.9