In the prelude to Christmas, death seems absent. It hides well in the packaging of these days. We have lost the pause of Advent, the time to think of what the coming of Christ means for us still, of what we are made to hope for at the end of our lives. We have lost the waiting by preempting the feasting. We have missed the chance to prepare. Or so it seems. These days, the feast comes ready made.
Death seems absent, or at least she hides in the shadows of our forgetfulness. We think of death as the point our natural lives come to an end. We think of the dead as the ones ‘gone before us’. Rarely, if ever, do we think of ourselves as dying.
Advent teaches us otherwise. It poses the possibility, the reality of Everlasting Life, through the lens of the daily living, and the daily dying we live.
From the depths of the human heart the desire to know the ‘why’ of death surely emerges most forceful when the pain of loss probes it forth. But there are numerous forms of dying and plentiful reasons to think of death as we prepare for the Birth of one we call the the Desire of the Ages. Some reasons are more demanding than others. Our sinfulness calls for an accounting, Certain reasons are more solitary, and others communal. In each of them we see the purpose of waiting — the meaning of preparing. The need for redemption. We are called to contemplate the significance of dying, firstly, to the distractions of modern chaos, and from this penitential return to the significance of these weeks of waiting, we are as if led from the desert to the threshold of that real desire that dwells at the liturgical heart of the adventus we observe.
At the heart of our dying is the experience of longing. We long for love. We long for purity. We long for simplicity. We long for life — we long to be living more fully. Most often none of these longings are overt; our sins dull them, sometimes to oblivion. In time, and with the work of grace, they become more prominent, but they rarely begin so. The haze of modern life often veils this change. One thing is exceptionally evident and objectively real, however: we desire, we seek, we want, we need. Chaos — however physically or spiritually pervasive, death, loss, illness, sorrow — however trying, sin — however serious, cannot take away from us that inborn desire for more than the superficially unsatisfying thrills we seek and achieve. For these are never sufficient. They are merely pauses in that longer symphony of parts that is each human life.
We yearn for the high points, the vistas, the climax of joy. Christmas heightens this inborn instinct. It calls forth the urge of life. The survival of the soul. It compels us to gaze towards the spectacle of the heavens, wherefrom we can hear it said anew, ‘Fear not, for behold I bring tidings of great joy‘ (cf. Luke 2.10).
Why ‘Fear not‘?
Because fear was there on the night of that blessed Nativity. Fear is here, in hearts that wait across the land. Death is real.
But so is the longing for life.
It is striking that no other event in human history has the power to ignite so visceral a longing for living. We experience it, perhaps, partly as mystery
The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.
–C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
But more often, and more surely, we experience it in the stark realism of our daily lives
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. . . . I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; . . . I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.
–Lewis in Christian Behaviour, an unpublished letter to Clyde S. Kilby, 20 November 1962
The longing remains — yes, indeed — almost illogical, surreal. To know one is made for another world, to know one longs for another life, is to know one is dying to the present world and the present life. In this realization there is either peace or despair, hope or piercing disbelief. Sin either triumphs, or it is overcome by grace.
Our longing remains. And the advent waiting, the penance of expectant delay, teaches that it is attended to, satisfied by the illogical and surreal: the Incarnation of God who sent His only Son, in the flesh, to sweeten the agony of each human life with the presence of His divinity. Each year, we are reminded of the God who became a child. His efficacious grace was lavished in the poverty of that night. Through the ages that have passed, Christmas remains the present introduction to the hope of life everlasting for a longing humanity.
Fear not, was the greeting the Virgin received from Gabriel. Fear not was the greeting the shepherds received as they were entrusted with the news of a divine birth. Fear not is the the final testament of the Savior before He climbs the hill of Calvary.
I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also.
From the hiddenness of the womb, to the lowliness of the stable, to the banks of the Jordan and the roads of Galilee, and onto the final agony that ushered the hope of salvation, the life of Christ was one of dying. Not that he lost His divinity along the way, but that he lived it fully, assuming the very burden of human sinfulness, the very agony of human dying, to ensure that death would be undone, that it would become the portal to life.
The Maker of man became Man that He, Ruler of the stars, might be nourished at the breast; that He, the Bread, might be hungry; that He, the Fountain, might thirst; that He, the Light, might sleep; that He, the Way, might be wearied by the journey; that He, the Truth, might be accused by false witnesses; that He, the Judge of the living and the dead, might be brought to trial by a mortal judge; that He, Justice, might be condemned by the unjust; that He, Discipline, might be scourged with whips; that He, the Grape, might be crowned with thorns; that He, the Foundation, might be suspended upon a cross; that Courage might be weakened; that Security might be wounded; that Life might die.
– St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 191 | On the Nativity of the Lord
The longing then is one of dying to live. One of restored hope. One where death does not hide as if forgotten, but is lived out, as the truest advent of hope. If that stable, in its delicate sweetness, hides death well, we have forgotten its poor wood is the noble wood of the cross. The Passion of the Christ is the Passion of God made an infant so that we might recognize Him. That stable is the gateway to salvation. The cries of the Child, are the cries of the Son of God, crucified.
Would that we find ourselves beholding the mystery before us with expectant hearts. For though faith be veiled, though weakness hinder, though sin impair, still we might say
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not nigh:
a star shall come forth out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel
– Numbers 24.17
The glory of Christmas night means the Incarnation continues to renew the world; grace flows, superabundant. We have the life of God to bring us home, so that we might also believe that the sweetest thing in all our lives has been the longing. The longing for a return, to find the place where all the beauty came from — our country, the place where we ought to have been born.
And should this be the possibility Advent offers, then let us indeed prepare. Let us follow that star and come in adoration. From that place of weakness and frailty and sorrow, falling suppliant, we shall enter the realm of the living; we shall see visions of death, not hidden, forgotten, but lived, and conquered, in the One who lived it for us, and ravished its hold on our souls
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
If we have forgotten how to prepare for the feast, let the living begin — let us long for the birth of the Desire of the Ages. Let us press on to that Country, arrive at that manger, and fall there bearing the gifts of our lives! Yes, let us make it the object for the rest of our lives to help others to do the same
O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
Veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Dayspring, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
–The Advent ‘O Antiphons’
For we always process towards the glory of Bethlehem despairing for joy, dying to live…
…Please God, yet fearing nevermore.
And He lies there. Waiting.
You may reach Maria Grizzetti at IncarnationandModernity@gmail.com