For most of my youth — okay, life — I thought Advent was a clever way to ration 25 days’ worth of holiday chocolates leading up to Christmas. (You’re forgiven, by me at least, if you think the same. Nobody wants to run out of truffles on the 22nd.)
I wasn’t wrong, per se, but I fell quite shy of right.
Advent, besides a cardboard calendar with perforated, treasure-filled doors, is a word that describes the arrival of something notable — person, event, or confectionary treat. In the Christian tradition, it describes the season leading up to Christmas; i.e., a celebration of Jesus’ birth. In Christian theology, the idea of arrival bridges the literal and traditional definitions to mean (typically) the second coming of Christ. Anyway…
A dichotomy of being
I’ve had this nascent thought-blob germinating, slowly, for some time: two sides of various spectra, the poles of each layer aligned on either side. A dichotomy of being, if you will. I tried to draw it on a plane.
Take any field of study, any perspective on the human experience, and it can be analyzed, or at least recognized to fit the dichotomy. (Maybe. I’m feeling it as I go.)
A few examples:
Neuroscientists might look at disintegration on the one side, integration on the other. Physicists might see entropy on one side, order on the other. Biologists: decay or disease on one, growth or life on the other. A doctor might tell you about death and life. A poet about ugliness and beauty. A more rational thinker: false vs. true. My counselor speaks in terms of secure and insecure attachment, respectively. Mathematicians, irrational numbers, and, I don’t know, maybe perfect squares. (We’ll just leave them to snort their chalk dust in peace.) Circling back to theology, there are sin and righteousness; or, separation from and oneness with God.
Evil, good. No, yes. Coke, Pepsi. You get it.
In personal applications, fear lies opposite love, shame opposite acceptance. You can live with something or nothing to lose. Or, the idea that initially got me trying to articulate all this: confidence in one’s self on one side (self-destructive pride at the extreme); and humility on the other (confidence in God and in belonging to Him in the ideal).
The paradox and the way
In all examples, the former poses as the latter. Not only that, but the beautiful paradox, I believe, is that to achieve the latter one must experience the former. That is, not until confronted with the dark can one see the light. The counterfeit gives way to the authentic. First broken, then made new. Sounds like redemption.
Brennan Manning quotes José Ortega: “These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce.” The shipwrecked are those who have made, or are making, the transition. Because they’ve been wrecked. Of those who have not, Manning: “They never find themselves because they never really feel themselves lost.” Oh, to find myself lost!
Of course, C.S. Lewis puts it best: “If you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble — delightfully humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life.”
If there is anything to all of this, this transition across the dichotomy — if this broken, fractured, goofball existence is what we have now, then to what do we look forward?
No way out but through. North to go south. The obstacle is the way. “For the longest way round is the shortest way home” (Lewis again).
Now, we face terrorism, climate change, refugee crises, a shrinking middle class, Donald Trump, McDonald’s breakfast served all day. (We’ll need quite a hand basket to make it to hell with such a load.) Things generally seem to be heading the wrong direction. But I don’t think that direction is our destination. No, we — and the universe — are to be broken and emptied, then rebuilt and filled.
Yes, things are bleak. Getting bleaker, you say. But take heed; there is hope. Energy is moving, ultimately, up and not down. A new era is coming. A magnificent, unfathomable, turn of events. Everything that, since we first started screwing things up, is marked by increasing levels dysfunction and Advil will be made new. “The creator meant his light to emanate, ultimately, to man” (Annie Dillard).
And more good news: it is possible (inevitable? providential?) that in a person’s life, in my life, I can experience the transition. Spurred by the energy of a magnificent, galactic Grace, the same incomprehensible shift from one side of the dichotomy to the other can and does happen to people. Real, measly, lovely people.
This is the remarkable thing to which we look forward. This is Advent. Merry Christmas.
“When you shell peas, you notice that defective germ plasm shrivels one pea in almost every pod. I ain’t so pretty myself. ”
— Annie Dillard
“… the quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.”
— Jerry Sittser
“The way you live now is completely controlled by what you believe about your future.”
— Timothy Keller
“Death is not the end of adventure but a doorway from a world where dreams and adventures shrink, to a world where dreams and adventures forever expand.”
— Randy Alcorn
“Those who come down to the furnace go on their way afterwards as royal men and women, princes and princesses of the Royal Line.”
— Hannah Hurnard
Originally published at www.jaybryantjones.com on December 23, 2015.