On this first day of Advent as the story begins anew, there are those who would insist that this faith is a guess, built upon myth and legend, and that it requires the suspension of all reason and fact to believe. While not to doubt the role of the Holy Spirit in breaking down the barriers to belief that sin has placed in the heart, there are things to be asked about how such a faith would come to be without God's work and without truth behind every assertion.
St. John Chrysostom confronted such skepticism and offered a response that does not diminish the role of the Holy Spirit but also acknowledges that this could not be a fabricated lie:
How could twelve uneducated men, who lived on lakes and rivers and wastelands, get the idea for such an immense enterprise [of spreading the Gospel worldwide]? How could men who perhaps had never been in a city or a public square think of setting out to do battle with the whole world? That they were fearful, timid men, the evangelist makes clear; he did not reject the fact or try to hide their weaknesses. Indeed, he turned these into a proof of the truth. What did he say of them? That when Christ was arrested, they fled, despite all the miracles they had seen, while he who was leader of the others denied him!
How then account for the fact that these men, who in Christ’s lifetime could not stand up to the attacks by the Jews, now set forth to do battle with the whole world if Christ was dead – if, as you claim, Christ did not rise and speak to them and rouse their courage? Did they perhaps say to themselves: “What is this? He could not save himself but now he will protect us? He did not help himself when he was alive, but now that he is dead he will extend a helping hand to us? In his lifetime he brought no nation under his banner, but by uttering his name we will win over the whole world?” Would it not be wholly irrational even to think such thoughts, much less to act upon them?
It is evident, then, that if they had not seen him risen and had proof of his power, they would not have risked so much (Hom. 4,3.4: PG 61,34-36).
What we begin every Sunday closest to St. Andrew's Day is a rehearsal of the facts of an incredible story but it is a story that begs not simply to be told but to be challenged. I have often said to skeptics that better men than you have doubted God and the Gospel survived. So we must say again to those so sure that it could not be true, better men than you have doubted, discounted, and rejected the Word of the Lord but not only has the Gospel survived, it has flourished.
This is a Gospel told not by stories handed down through the telling over the ages but a story, one single story, seen across the ages by eyewitnesses who wrote what they saw. From burning bushes that were not consumed to a sea parted to a prophet coughed up by a great fish to men in a burning circle untouched by the flames. It was not a lie or an imagination at work or a delusion promulgated to deceive or a hope to replace misery. It was the promise handed down through the ages by the prophets made flesh and blood in the incarnation of the Son of God.. They wrote what they saw not as the educated or aloof but as a common people united in an uncommon Gospel that was pledged through the ages and manifested in fact in the man among men whose Father is God. The heroic force of these tellers is matched by the tenacity of the people gripped by their vision and by the Spirit to keep going what God had begun. The fact that this faith transformed the story of mankind even without stilling every doubt or silencing every critic is made even more incredible by the fact that still people gather to hear its voice and respond with faith, repentance, and hope.
Join us, we pray, as Christians from throughout the world begin a new Church Year, the telling of the ancient story, and the celebration of the promise of God fulfilled in His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Almighty Lord God, who hast by Thy grace this day permitted us to enter a new church year, we beseech Thee, grant unto Thy Church Thy Holy Spirit and the wisdom which cometh down from above, that Thy Word, as becometh it, may not be bound but have free course and be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ's holy people, that in steadfast faith we may serve Thee, and in the confession of Thy name abide unto the end; through Jesus Christ, Thy dear Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
Stir up, we beseech You, Your power, O Lord, and come, that by Your protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins, and be saved by Your mighty deliverance; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one true God, now and forever. Amen. (Collect for Advent 1)
Lord God, heavenly Father, we thank You, we bless and praise You forever, that You sent Your Son to rule over us poor sinners, who for our transgressions justly deserved to remain in the bondage of sin and Satan, and that in Him You gave us a meek and righteous King, who by His death became our Savior from sin and eternal death. We beseech You so to enlighten, govern and direct us by Your Holy Spirit, that we may ever remain faithful to this righteous King and Savior, and not, after the manner of the world, be offended by His humble form and despised Word, but, firmly believing in Him, obtain eternal salvation; through the same, Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one true God, now and forever. Amen. (Collect for the Gospel, Advent 1)