Hearing Old Testament Advent Texts
It is often easy to take the Old Testament readings for the season of Advent as little more than prologue, the preliminaries that set the stage for the main attraction. There is certainly one sense in which that is true as we focus on expectation, hope, and God’s future work in history. Liturgically, that does generate an eagerness to "move on," especially as we anticipate the Second Advent in the Advent season.
Yet, in terms of understanding and faithfully proclaiming the message of the Old Testament as Scripture, we cannot so easily relegate it to such a secondary role. It is true that some perspectives on the nature of Scripture see the Old Testament, particularly the prophetic traditions, in terms of historical prediction that only awaits the unfolding of history to vindicate the truth of the prediction. The validity and authority of Scripture is then established by the direct correspondence of later events to that prediction.
Again, while there may be some validity in that perspective as an affirmation of Faith, the dynamics and truth of Scripture operate on a far deeper level. Too often, "fulfillment" is allowed to eclipse "promise." Without taking seriously the fact that "promise" is part of the ongoing life of the Community of Faith, and is profoundly a theological idea to be lived more than a historical fact to be proven or even anticipated, the Old Testament functionally becomes little more than proof of the validity of the New Testament, with very little practical application of its own in the life of the church today.
This does not at all suggest that there is no connection between Old Testament prophetic texts and the Christian Faith. But the perspective suggested here is that the connection must first run forward theologically and only then work backward historically. That is, the forward connection is not just a prediction of historical event that leads to a new theology that then is imposed backward. Rather, it is that the theology developed within the life of Israel and the traditions of the Old Testament, even the prophetic traditions, must be allowed to inform later revelations of God in history. And then that later New Testament understanding as shaped by those events and theology can be used to work backward historically to understand the flow of God’s work and revelation within history.
It is this dynamic and interactive relationship between the Testaments that prevents the development of the idea of supersessionism in which the Old Testament is functionally rejected as inferior to the new revelation and superseded by it. That position has never been held officially by Christianity and was even rejected in the heresy of Marcion, although it sometimes appears in more subtle forms even today. It is also this understanding of the dynamic relationship between the Testaments that allows us to hear how the New Testament writers used the Old Testament texts for their own faith confessions based on the new historical event of the Incarnation.
The message of these Old Testament readings, then, does not lie even primarily on the level of historical correspondences, as much as we may want to focus on those dimensions. The message of the prophetic books and Advent Readings lies in what they tell us about God, what they expose to us about ourselves, and what they reveal of how God relates to us and how we should respond to God. In that sense, the primary category for understanding the Old Testament readings is theological, not historical.
And if that is true, the Old Testament readings must address us in far more significant ways than merely offering further miraculous proof of something already well affirmed in the New Testament. They must be understood on a different level than simply predicting specific historical events, even events related to the coming of Jesus. If we listen to the Old Testament readings as Scripture, we may be able again to hear the living word of God spoken through the community of Faith across the centuries, God speaking in various times and in various ways that, indeed, prepares us and leads us to hear the new Word spoken in Jesus the Christ (Heb 1:1-2). They will testify to God, they will confront us with our own sin, they will bear witness to God’s grace, and they will call us to repentance and righteousness, and a transformed life. That is always the role of the word, and the Word.