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Lament and Hope, Grief and Expectation

December 10, 2013

by Chris Haw

To the extent that people know Advent exists—that is, as anything other than the post-Thanksgiving stampede toward Christmas—they know it is the season of expectation. (I need not remind readers that it subverts the “gotta have it now” consumer holiday, thus endangering our economy but inviting Black Friday shoppers to safety.) My beloved Sacred Heart Church in Camden, NJ, blesses expectant mothers at the start of advent. The priest says pregnant women are the most glorious icons of divinity available to humanity’s gaze. The week prior to such dazzling fullness, the parish memorialized those murdered this past year (referred to as “the Murder Mass”), calling out victims’ names, ages, and how they were killed. This year is at 51 so far, in a town of 78,000 (putting its murder rate on par with Medellin, Colombia). This is the season of pregnancy; but the slaughtering of innocents bodes ominous on our horizon.

Combining lament and hope, grief and expectation, both grounds us in “reality” and pushes our minds towards its edge—toward imagining an end to our violent era, known as “the fall.” Grieving at the loss of human life and sanctifying its expected entrance into our world is not a self-evident form of hope. I have found it quite telling to hear of how Nietzsche despised such sentimentality:

Through Christianity, the individual was made so important, so absolute, that he could no longer be sacrificed: but the species endures only through human sacrifice. . . . If one regards individuals as equals, one calls the species into question, one encourages a way of life that leads to the ruin of the species . . . The species requires that the ill-constituted, weak, degenerate, perish: but it was precisely to them that Christianity turned as a conserving force.[1]

In other words, Nietzsche hates Advent. He wants us to “accept the mixture of strife, suffering and beauty of human life as it is, as it always will be.”[2] There is no end to this era of the fall; all is sea; there is no land. “Get used to it; in fact, celebrate it!” he insists. Feel at home when the weak and degenerates perish. It will recur until the sun eats our planet. What you see is what you get.

But, to pray, with messianic expectation, “come, God!”—which is the prayer of Advent—is to reconstruct time itself. It is to remember a point in recent history when we saw the innocence and forgiveness of God shine through our thick clouds of violence, declaring in forced agony: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” All who have heard this good news proclaimed now imagine a future without such violent ignorance hidden in our hearts—when the glass we see through dimly now will in fact be no more. Part of Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front,” has all such tones of Advent:

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Even if taken literally, this passage would perhaps sufficiently convert the human race unto God’s majestic gentleness. But, taken cosmologically, the poem ushers the mind unto the depths of Paul’s image of waiting: the universe itself is pregnant and in the midst of birth pains. It groans, even inside us. Can you not feel the expansion of the universe, even from within yourself? Paul speaks of expectation even after the “awaited Messiah” had already come; but, even he has gone, and we must eagerly wait again.[3] Chesterton saw this eternal gaze of hope as a contradiction to merely seizing the day:

The carpe diem religion is not the religion of happy people, but of very unhappy people. . . . Great joy has in it the sense of immortality; the very splendor of youth is the sense that it has all space to stretch its legs in . . . moments are filled with eternity; these moments are joyful because they do not seem momentary . . . People cannot love mortal things. We can only love immortal things for an instant.[4]

It also seems quite a paradox that Advent’s eager expectation—just like the still moments of waiting during a baby’s delivery—is something that quiets the mind. It is a glorious combination, then, to have Advent as the time when the days—if you can avert your gaze from the streets and malls, to our planetary setting—are growing more calm and dark. Some folks anoint these days with the trembling stillness of using only candlelight.

Thomas Merton, I think in this very spirit, wrote a poem that, when spoken slowly, in the twilight of a candlelit advent vespers, brings chills of God’s mysterious absence and presence to my spine:

Time falls like manna at the corners of the wintry earth.
We have become more humble than the rocks,
More wakeful than the patient hills.

Charm with your stainlessness these nights in Advent,
holy spheres,
While minds, as meek as beasts,
Stay close at home in the sweet hay;
And intellects are quieter than the flocks that feed by starlight.

Oh pour your darkness and your brightness over all our
solemn valleys,
You skies: and travel like the gentle Virgin,
Toward the planets’ stately setting,

Oh white full moon as quiet as Bethlehem!

May you walk through Advent asking, “Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child? Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?” May all hostilities cease for the coming of God.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic, trans Douglas Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 19.

[2] Robinette, Brian, Grammars of Resurrection: A Theology of Presence and Absence (Crossroad, 2009), 274.

[3] A hat tip to John Caputo who has championed the hopeful philosophical structure underneath the Judeo-Christian horizon of time. He says, “the ‘to come’ shines a white light of urgency on the present. It exposes all the faults of the present. It is not off in the future. It is the thing that traumatizes our narcissism; it prevents us from congratulating ourselves on what we have accomplished. It gives us a sense of urgency about the imperfection of the present . . . Everything that takes place in prayer is contracted into ‘come.’”

[4] Heretics, “Omar and the Sacred Vine.”

Chris Haw lives in South Bend, IN, with his wife and two kids, and has started his PhD work at Notre Dame in theology and peace studies. He is the co-author of the best-selling book Jesus for President with Shane Claiborne. And he recently released a book about his joining the Catholic Church, From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart (Ave Maria Press). For more information, visit his website: chris-haw.com.

Labels: Blog
  • Pat Mulligan

    Thanks Chris. I was moved by your thoughts on Advent. I will read it again and again – I will need to to get it’s full meaning. I have long been disturbed by the consumer frenzy that literally consumes Advent. I wrote a haiku a couple of years ago when I saw the near mile-long lineup of cars waiting to enter the Deptford Mall the Sunday before Christmas:
    Listening to Silent Night
    In the Deptford Mall
    Jesus Christ.

  • http://www.ravenfoundation.org/blogs/copy-that Suzanne Ross

    I appreciate your thoughts on Advent quiet, Chris. I do love falling into the darkness of winter nights as I anticipate the coming of the light of the world.