Little Doors (Advent for the Skeptical and Weary, Part 4)
I’ve been using this Advent series to mull over some of my struggles with the season, which has made for some serious posts. Here, I talk about my petulant Christmas cards. Here, I talk about seasonal depression. Here, I question how we’re supposed to hope when we can’t even figure out what to hope for. So for a little levity, at this point I will insert a ridiculous intermission: Advent calendars.
I am not a Catholic, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church seems as good a place as any to learn the origins of the liturgical season of Advent. All right, Catholics—hit it.
“When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming.”
—Catechism of the Catholic Church
Okay, good basic definition. So—just curious—as a parent, how am I supposed to impart a proper eschatological yearning to my children?
Well, duh. The Beano.
Or maybe Darth Maul.
Or let’s just go with whiskey.
Truly, the end times may come with Darth Maul and crappy chocolate, and we may very well greet them with fear and whiskey.
Advent calendars will appear again in this post. But back to the question I was struggling with at the end of my last post:
How do I celebrate hope when I don’t know what I’m hoping for?
I’ve been reflecting on that question this past week.
Part of the reason I looked up the definition of Advent above is that every year, the season confuses me. During Advent, it appears the church is waiting for Jesus’ birth. But Jesus was already born. Approximately two millennia ago. So is this entire season a sort of grown-up make-believe, counting down to Christmas? And why?
It’s funny that after eleven years of hanging around in churches, only this week did I look up the orthodox answer above: that Advent historically commemorates not only the waiting for Christ’s birth, but his second coming. In the words of that catechism: We the Church believe that Christ is going to return.
“Second coming” and “Christ’s return” is the kind of language that gives me the willies. I was raised in a totally nonreligious, we-didn’t-even-go-to-church-nominally, highly-suspicious-of-Christianity family. When I was 25, after a long period of searching and studying and prayer, I had an odd and overwhelming experience that eventually put me on the Christian path. The church has become home to me. But I still have the cultural ears and eyes and the skepticism of an outsider. When I hear “second coming” or “Christ’s return” or “God’s kingdom coming,” I get images of the Left Behind series and Bible Belt threats of the rapture. The only emotion this creates in me is alienation.
So I employ a trick I’ve often used with religious concepts that disturb me or leave me cold: I try to translate them into secular terms, or humanist terms. I read the texts while asking myself this question:
Why would such-and-such a religious idea or thing further the cause of love in the world, or be of benefit to all people?
When I can think of it that way, I am able to drop my defenses and go on to consider it from a religious point of view.
So these days, when I hear the phrase “God’s kingdom,” I’ve come to substitute “God’s dream for the world.” I am a 21st century American. I can’t relate to kingdoms and kings. But dreams, I can relate to.
And I think that what we call “God’s kingdom” is in fact the divine dream for Love to rule. For war to end. For the environment to be restored. For social justice to be done. For the poor to finally enjoy plenty. For no more abuse of the powerless by the powerful. For our personal heartbreaks to be healed. The inclusion of all peoples. These are things any human can desire. When I read the Bible, particularly the prophets and the gospels, I see these specific things mentioned as part of God’s desires for the world. And they happen in the context of an endless love affair between God and human beings.
If this is God’s dream, then yes; “God’s kingdom coming” is something I can relate to and hope for. Especially in a year like this, when our country elected a president who has spoken disrespectfully of women, black and brown people, Muslims, people with disabilities, and any number of people groups; who has spoken cavalierly of using nuclear weapons; who has shown no concern for the environment, and dismissed the science that urgently warns us to act; who has “tremendous” wealth but little evidence that he’s ever used it to benefit the poor. These things are the opposite of God’s dream for the world. The violence in Syria is the opposite of God’s dream for the world. The hate crimes increasing across the country are the opposite of God’s dream for the world.
If we do nothing more than passively look forward to that dream, the dream of planet Earth transformed, we are just choosing a cop-out John Mayer-style “waitin’ on the world to change.” It’s not supposed to be like that. The way Christ talks about it in the gospels, God’s dream for the world is a realm, a dimension, that is already very close at hand. It’s very much like an Advent calendar: it’s just behind those little cardboard doors.
Sometimes these doors are opened for us, as pure gift, and we briefly glimpse something that feels transcendent and fearfully beautiful.
And we also have the agency and ability to open those doors. We do it whenever we act in love.
This is why, in the tradition of Christ—the real following of Christ, not the misuse of Christ’s name for purposes of domination and oppression and judgment—there’s such a focus on turning away from our selfishness and toward service and love.
Thinking of Advent this way—looking forward to the transformed world, the endless divine love affair, and choosing to open doors into that dimension through acts of love—this increases my enthusiasm for the season, actually. But this is Advent for the Skeptical and Weary, so you know I’m going to have some further quibble or question. And I do.
Many times in my life, I’ve tried to follow this path of choosing love over selfishness. I say I’ve tried, not that I’m awesome at it or that I thrive on it. I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer and work at nonprofits, including the peace movement, and most recently a church. I moved back to Long Island—a place where I’ve never really felt a sense of belonging—because my husband, whom I love, wanted to be near our families. All these choices were done in genuine love. But they also curbed the pursuit of my own dreams, particularly the desire to pursue a simple life and write and be part of a community of artists and makers.
This past spring, I finally admitted to myself that something inside me was dying. We now have two young children who (age-appropriately) require a lot of caretaking, attention and help. I was working in a job entirely focused on serving. I was here in this place, Long Island, where artists and kindred souls are few and far between. I was doing all these things for the sake of love and I was dying inside. And in the Christian tradition, we talk much about this aspiration to “die to ourselves” in the service of something bigger, in the service of love. But I couldn’t do it anymore.
What, then, do I do with this doctrine I believed in for so long–this path of “dying to ourselves” and living a life of service?
And as far as Advent goes—what do I do in a season of giving when I have nothing left to give?
I am musing on this. More thoughts to come in my next post.