Monday, March 10, 2003

I'm still an Advent person

Back in December, someone (probaby Kathy the Carmelite) asked if we are Advent or Easter people. It is Lent, and I still feel like an Advent person, but it wasn't until I was trying in vain to get to sleep tonight that I realized why. This is all rather inchoate, so please try to get the gist of what I am saying, rather than parsing the wording too closely. (Back in December, I quoted extensively from an essay by a German Jesuit, written in prison a few months before the Nazis executed him. Go back and read it again.)

This will sound horribly ungrateful, and I don't mean it ungratefully, but I already have Easter: the reason our Lenten penances are suspended on Sundays is, Sundays are during but not of Lent. Each is a kind of mini Easter. Every Sunday when we stand witness at Calvary, we receive the Resurrection in ourselves. But Advent is different, and we only get a symbolic birth of the Savior--at least so far.

I am very aware of all the scholarship that suggests Christ's birth took place in the Spring, based on the activity of the shepherds among other things. (Perhaps the proximity between the fact of Easter and the probability of Christmas is connected to my attitude, as well.) But the placement for many centuries of Christmas in December seems to me a good thing, and one of the reasons I favor Advent. The world slips further and further into darkness in the Northern Hemisphere, where Christmas was first celebrated, during Advent. But the light is renewed more or less simultaneously with the renewal of Light. The metaphor works.

But it still comes back to this much: we have the Resurrection already. We are waiting for the return. Of course, of course: be careful what you wish for. As CS Lewis puts it: when the author walks onto the stage, the play is over.

I had a very close friend from high school die of a very rare bone cancer in the summer before senior year of college. He was a Notre Dame student, and his funeral was in Michigan, so many of the priests and brothers made the trip from South Bend. I remember sitting in the airport lounge with one, who had been head of Jay's dorm, and even though he was the clergy and I was the 21 year old pallbearer, I very much remember comforting him, and being at peace even as sad as I was. "Jay doesn't have to deal with all the nonsense anymore: he's above it all now." I don't want you getting the idea I am anywhere near a death wish. But I am still, in a manner of speaking, envious of my friend.

Advent, even though it is a celebration of the first coming, prefigures in a way the promised Second one. And there are all kinds of creepy, make-your-skin-crawl-because-your-Irish-paganism-never-really-went-away-it-just-hibernated-for-a-while, reasons to think the Second one might come sooner rather than later. The Mayan Calendar ends abruptly, just before Christmas, in the year 2012, and whatever else one wants to say about ancient Pagans, they seemed to be more in touch with the mystical nature of the world for at least a while, before reverting to something very like Satanism. I read recently that no less a person than Isaac Newton had worked his way through every hint of prophesy in the Bible, and calculated that the world will end in 2060. The Irish mystic Malachi, who creepily foresaw the names of Popes for the past several centuries, gives us only I think 3 more before the end of the show. The Fatima prophesies supposedly foretell an end in the not too distant future, though I'll leave it to the SSPX folks to debate whether the consecration of Russia was real or not.

Now, I'm not betting on an Apocalypse in my life time--that's not my point. (I just want your skin to crawl like my pagan heart does). The point is, this stuff feels creepy because it is. Prophets of doom thrive because we are all hardwired to expect the ultimate doom. Asteroid impacts freak us out because deep down inside we have always known it was coming. "So that's how it will happen," is often the first thought when some yutz down at the local observatory announces that we are all going to die on March 23, 2017, and no matter how fast the thought fades into "I wonder if the nuclear missiles will succeed in steering it off course," the first thought did appear.

Advent is an opportunity to remember a hope that came once before and will come again, but hasn't yet. Easter is in many ways the greater miracle by far, but is with us once a week, even in the Archdiocese of Boston. It's not complacency and it isn't ingratitude. Perhaps it is the same thing that trips me up in every other part of my life: the inability to focus on what is in favor of what may yet be.


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