Twelve Days: The Fullness of Time

One of the Christmas Eve services I attended virtually on Thursday, the late one at my father-in-law’s church, began with chronology: (he’s a Lutheran, but this comes from a Catholic source)

The Twenty-fifth Day of December…

…in the twenty-first century since Abraham, our father in faith, came out of Ur of the Chaldees;

in the thirteenth century since the People of Israel were led by Moses in the Exodus from Egypt;

around the thousandth year since David was anointed King;

in the sixty-fifth week of the prophecy of Daniel;

in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;

in the year seven hundred and fifty-two since the foundation of the City of Rome;

in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus, the whole world being at peace,

Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and when nine months had passed since his conception, was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man:

The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

Luke doesn’t actually tell us how far into the emperorship of Caesar Augustus — or the governorship of Quirinius — Jesus was born. Strikingly, he saves his precision for a woman: Jesus is presented at the temple in the 84th year of the prophet Anna (2:37).

Anna encounters Jesus, from the cathedral of Burgos, Spain – Creative Commons (Sustiputo)

There are good reasons to question any attempt to mark the date, whether the source is biblical or liturgical. But let’s not miss the larger point: whether or not we know the exact year, month, or day of the Nativity, the Nativity did happen on a particular day, month, and year.

That point is related to Paul’s point as Galatians enters its fourth chapter. Just before our epistle text for today begins, he likens his readers and him to young heirs, who “are no better than slaves… until the date set by the father.

So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

Gal. 4:3-5

I’m no biblical scholar, so I can’t tell you all the implications of Paul’s choice of the Greek word translated as fullness. (As I sip my morning coffee, I just see hot liquid about to spill over the brim of a mug.) But I am a historian, so I have some sense of the importance of the word time.

If God sent his son in the “fullness of time,” then he came among us within history.

Not within poetic imagination or philosophical abstraction, but history. The Word was made flesh, and so text entered context: the religion of one particular people (Jews), the politics of another (Romans), and the culture of another (Greeks).

Jesus’ birth was part of a cosmic drama involving “elemental spirits,” but time came full in the lived experience of physical creatures.

And it continues. While “fullness of time” might sound like a completion or culmination, Nativity was not the end of history but its hinge. Jesus’ first coming lives in our memory because we still await his second.

So as we near the start of the 2021st year in the reign of our Lord Jesus Christ and prepare to make resolutions about how we’ll improve ourselves, this historian is pondering one more implication of God working within history: the impassible entered the changeable. What was perfect came to perfect.

I’ll continue that thought tomorrow…

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