Tuesday 1 December 2015

Advent ambiguity

It’s all a bit vague. Advent I mean. All this waiting … and waiting … and waiting. We know who we’re waiting for because he’s already been here. In fact, as Beckett said of Godot (alluding to Matthew 25:31ff.?), we may not know it, but he’s here now: he “is my neighbour in the cell next to mine.” Still, yes, even as the one who is coming is here, so the one who is here is still coming. But notwithstanding the asinine prognostications and genre-illiterate apocalyptic readings of the witless and deranged, though we know the who, and also the why – to “make all things new” (Revelation 21:5) – we don’t know the when, where, or how.

The same uncertainty goes for the four traditional themes of Advent – TRIGGER WARNING – death, judgement, heaven and hell.

No one knows the when, where, or how of the arrival of the Grim Reaper – though we do know that he will be infinitely more attractive than those who, in their ishoo-laden cosmetic attempts to delay the date, are only ensuring that they look more like a gargoyle than he does when he comes to collect them.

And judgement? Only someone who goes “Ee ore” would presume to know whether he will be going “Baaa” or “Meh heh” when the barnyard is finally sorted. We do know the criterion of judgement (Matthew 25:31ff. again), namely, whether we’ve been kind and compassionate bipedal beasts, but we know too that it will be a time of big surprises. Someone whose self-image is ovine might find himself a lamb chop.

Which brings me to heaven and hell. All we know about heaven is that the Cubs will be winning the World Series there, so if you’re from the South Side of Chicago you’ll know at once that you’re in the Other Place. Or not. Hell, after all, is a disputed doctrine. Were it not for the Yankees, I myself would be a universalist. And were I an annihilationist, I’d be drawing my imagery from the infinite void of cricket. Still, you never know. Or maybe you do. More’s the pity.

Yes, it’s all rather vague. Which, I suspect, is the point. The point of Advent I mean. Faith isn’t certainty. Faith doesn’t have all the answers. Faith requires what Keats called negative capability, being “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Faith can say, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.” Faith can even say “I was wrong” or “I’ve changed my mind.” Faith can embrace plurality and welcome the contested. “Clear” and “distinct” ideas and epistemological closure – that’s Cartesianism, not Christianity.

Shucks, I’m not even sure that I have faith. But then who cares, for who am I to say? It’s the faith of the one who is coming to meet us that saves (yeah, I’m a subjective genitive kind of guy). He is my Christmas carol, cake and cracker. How will I recognise him? Like Roy Rogers – TRIGGER WARNING – he’ll be riding a palomino (Revelation 19:11ff.). Or maybe not.

So here’s to Advent ambiguity. Yaki dah!


Alan K said...

Thank you, Kim. For years I have struggled to articulate to my congregation what sort of season and space Advent actually is. I'm sure you're well acquainted with the sentimental forces that respond to death, judgment, heaven and hell by insisting on singing Christmas carols all month long. I have dug in firm against them (while, yes, occasionally giving them a nibble of December 25 as early as the Feast of St. Nicholas), but have wondered how to ensure that the season is framed by realities and not possibilities if you know what I mean (which I think you do). A liberal Advent is not much better than Advent-as-Christmas. I'm curious how you preached a Christologically-constrained negative capability without having Advent bloom into a fully-fledged Christmas celebration.

Thanks again. Your posts are a true gift to this pastor.

RDM said...

This post is wonderful and I echo Alan's comments too.

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