It's when we remember a time when Christ was nowhere. We are the Christmas people, believing and giving witness to the world that Christ is now here. But there was a time in the world when Christ was not. And that is how it still feels for too many people. It can feel that way in the church too.
Often it feels like Christ is nowhere, but we choose to believe that Christ is now here.
There is a word that describes this Advent experience. Prolepsis.
Prolepsis is not a word used much around my house. Never, actually.
For those in speech or debate class, you may be familiar with prolepsis. It's the anticipation and answering of a possible objection to a point you are making in your presentation.
For those that are story-tellers, we use phrases that are tap int prolepsis. When we use a phrase like: "he was a dead man walking" - he's not really a dead man yet, but he will be, and he is seen as a dead man now, though he is not yet.
I was in jail the other day, thinking about prolepsis. Following my sermon study, I made a visit to the county jail. While waiting for the inmate to be brought out for our visit, I was standing against the cement wall pondering how to explain prolepsis.
I got to thinking of all the inmates I have visited in jail. There are some inmates who are truly imprisoned. For them, the past, present, and future are wrapped up in being imprisoned now. They feel trapped, they don't know how to avoid being jailed, and though they don't want to stay in prison, they don't know what to do different to stay out of prison once they get out.
But there are the prisoners I visit with who are free. They may be on the other side of the glass, but they are with me in spirit. When we talk, we talk about what will be different, and what is already different. They are ready to do the work that will both lead to freedom and keep them free.
They are not just living in the future, they are doing now what they will need to do in the future to be and stay free. Though they are not as free as they want to be, they are as free as they can be. They are so certain of becoming an staying future, that they live and act now as if they are free.
That is prolepsis. The future present now, but not yet. The present that is yet to be. The future unfolding in the now.
Prolepsis in Scripture is scripted by promises.
Prolepsis helps us see the Christmas story anew, because Christmas is about promises made and promises kept. Christmas is about the present that is yet to be, about a future that is unfolding in the now. Christmas is about Jesus as king now, but not yet.
You can see this so clearly in Mary the mother of Jesus, as written down in the Gospel according to Luke. The messenger of God proclaims good news to Mary: you shall bear a son who will save his people from their sins. You will name him Jesus, and he will lead his people out of exile. Jesus will become king of Israel, he will sit upon the throne of his ancestor King David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. His kingdom shall come and it will never end.
What does Mary do? A few things. First she wonders why the angel is even there. Then she wonders how all this will happen. But then, in wonder and delight, she responds with faith and faithfulness: "May it be to me as you have promised."
Then she hurries off to hang out with her cousin Elizabeth, who had a similar encounter with a messenger of God. While there, Mary bursts into song, and it's full of prolepsis.
Mary's song envisions a world where what God has promised has already come to pass. All the angel did was announce the birth of a king, and Mary is singing about the downfall of the proud. Mary believes a savior will be born, and now she is lauding the Lord for having lifted up the poor and humiliated. She's not even pregnant yet, and Mary acts as if the promises to Abraham and David have already been fulfilled. That is prolepsis. Believing a promise so strongly you behave as if it is fully true now.
King David had a promise-making moment with the Lord, one that is very relevant to Mary's song and our proleptic examples.
He finally had rest from warring against his enemies. David sat firm and secure on his throne. But as he looked out from his palace, he realized that God dwelled in a tent. Whereas David sat in royal splendor, God's house was a stitched together of animal skins. Maybe David felt guilty? Maybe David felt bad for God? Whatever the reason, God wasn't impressed. He didn't need a new house, didn't want a new house, and didn't ask David to build anything for him.
Actually God put David in his place: who are you to decide what kind of house is good enough for God? But then God followed up with a string of promises to David: God will build a house for David that lasts forever. The God of Israel who established David's kingdom will cause it to never end. It's an extraordinary promise to David, who is completely humbled by this turn of events. David breaks into song and prayer, praising the Lord for making this promise to his house, to Israel. But David sings as if the promise is already fulfilled, he prays as if the kingdom is an eternal one already.
It's like when a bride and groom pledge to uphold their vows to one another, promising fidelity forever. In that moment, they are caught up in savoring an eternal promise. Right there and then they experience the feeling of a promise of forever fidelity.
For sports fans out there, everyone knows that elite athletes practice prolepsis. The basketball shooter at the free throw line can see himself putting the ball through the hoop before he actually does it. The future point is already present in the now, but not yet. The quarterback can already see his wide receiver making the catch in the end zone before the throw has been made. The sprinter has already crossed the finish line in first place before he is out of the starting blocks. In their minds they are victors before the contest has begun. They practice in prolepsis, seeing themselves holding the trophy while they prepare for it as if it had already come to pass, but not yet.
This is what the church does when we share in Eucharist together. The bread and the cup of communion is a present experience of a future reality, the Great Banquet with the King. We eat and drink now as if the Great Banquet has already started. We believe we are having a communion with the Lord now as if he had already set the table.
Or take baptism: we go under the water and are brought up from it as if we were dying and being resurrected from the dead. Baptism is death and resurrection now, but not yet. It is believing the promise so strongly, we live now as if we have already died and been raised bodily from the grave.
Prolepsis is powerful and transformative. Prolepsis is the name we give to the experience of believing the promises made to us, and living in the light of them.
Advent is a proleptic event. It reminds the church that we are a proleptic people. If you have been baptized, you are living in prolepsis. If you partake of Eucharist, you are doing prolepsis. If you believe the promises God made to Israel were fulfilled in Jesus and are given now to you, you are doing prolepsis.
Christmas is prolepsis. The First Christmas being prolepsis of the Last Christmas. Jesus coming to Israel as their king was a now - not yet reality. He was God reigning over the world in Jesus of Nazareth, who was king of Israel and lord of all nations, but not yet. The crucified, resurrected, ascended Lord Jesus Christ was, is, and shall rule in truth and grace forever; he does so now through the church, but not yet.
He has promised to rescue us from sin and death, we experience it now, but not yet. He are so confident in Jesus keeping his promise to save us, that we act as if it has already happened; the future present now. Our trust in the Lord is so strong that we live now as if our forgiveness on Judgment Day has already occurred; the present that is yet to be. The faith we have in God is so vibrant, we believe that his reign has already begun on the earth;
Christmas is about promises made and promises kept. Christmas is about prolepsis. Do you believe?
For those with searching eyes and yearning hearts, it too often feels like Christ is nowhere. That's what it felt like to the inmate I visited in jail, as she poured her heart out to me. How does God feel so far away? Why doesn't he feel close?
But to those who have heard the promise and believe it, Christ is now here.
That is prolepsis.
And that is what Christmas is all about.