Sunday, December 14, 2014

Advent, Anticipation, And Hope: A Sunday Rumination

Remembering my blessings and remaining thankful for them has become more of a challenge for me as I age. The problems of age – pain; infirmity; anxiety about one’s future – are considerable, and the resources with which one can meet them are steadily diminishing. But that might be why old age comes after all the rest of life: so that even the most fortunate of us will be tested to our limits – that we won’t “slide in” to eternal life without ever having known trial or hardship.

Yes, I’m hurtin’ a bit this morning. But I have a few thoughts for you despite that, so stay tuned.

For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. [Job 19:26-26]

Advent is often spoken of as “the season of hope,” yet it stands immediately before the Feast of the Nativity, which occurs every year on the very same date. Hope would seem not to be a factor; we know what’s coming on December 25. (If we were inclined to forget, the chaos around major shopping centers would surely remind us.) It seems more a time of anticipation...preparation...remembrance of what has been and what will someday come again. And it is that as well.

But Advent does inspire hope, for a simple reason: faith requires it.

We who believe celebrate Christmas out of faith, not sure and certain knowledge. We’ve accepted a certain bit of history of the classical world, in which an extraordinary Man preached a New Covenant among the Jews of Judea, was tortured to death for defying the religious authorities of that time and place, and subsequently rose from the dead to confirm His Divinely-awarded authority to say and do what He had said and done.

We who believe hold that that extraordinary Man, Jesus of Nazareth, was God made flesh. But being the limited, temporally bound creatures we are, we cannot prove it. It’s an article of faith; we must hope that we’re correct.

Now go back to Job’s words and look more closely at them.

A writer of my acquaintance, Ron Currie, once penned a short story titled “Faith, Hope, Love,” about a widower struggling with grief as he raises his only child alone. (He later expanded and revised it, reissuing it under a new title: “No Epiphanies.”) It began with one of the most striking sentences I’ve ever encountered:

I have given my daughter God.

In the course of that story, the narrator-protagonist, who does not believe, declaims to his buddies that there is no faith; there is only knowledge: “My daughter knows her mother is in heaven. All I know is, she’s dead.”

The protagonist’s misconception of both faith and knowledge is one of the most important of all statements for a Christian to ponder – and Advent is the very best season of all in which to do so.

What do we know beyond all possibility of error? I mean, really?

Not bloody much, by my standards.

We speak so easily of knowledge, and with so little justification. We think we know ourselves, despite how often our own bodies, minds and characters have surprised us – even betrayed us. Each of us claims a fund of knowledge upon which basis we ply our trades, yet in nearly every case those trades constitute nothing more than manifestations of confidence, asserted through our actions, that certain previously observed patterns will repeat once more. We listen respectfully as others prattle about “what we know,” whether in the sciences, the soft disciplines, or any other context, when we really should either laugh raucously or absent ourselves to do something useful.

As a matter of fact – what the late Hal Geneen once called “unshakable facts,” that are immune to any possibility of disproof – we know approximately nothing. We can’t even be sure of our next breaths; after all, there’s nothing to prevent all the air from rushing to one corner of the room. All we can say about that possibility is that it hasn’t happened before...we think.

Indeed, our whole lives constitute an act of faith, and a matched act of hope: the hope that by doing what we do, by persevering as what we are, by enduring pain, fatigue, sacrifice, deferral of gratification, disappointment after disappointment, and the myriad uncertainties to which all flesh is heir, things may yet be better than they are at this instant.

We are purely creatures of faith and hope. Under the veil of time, it cannot be otherwise.

Here’s a thought for you: A mongoose never imagines that he might be wrong. Neither does a mandrill. Or a meerkat. Or a three-toed sloth. Or a blue-footed booby. Conceiving the possibility of error is a gift and a burden reserved to Man alone.

The lesser creatures cannot conceive of abstractions such as cause and effect. Their lives are wholly guided by the instructions God has written into their natures. That immunizes them against the uncertainties Man must endure.

It also means they have neither the need nor the ability to hope.

Man hopes because he perceives time: sequences of events and patterns that appear to bind them together. We probe the laws of Nature by observation, inference, hypothesis, and experiment. We hope to derive knowledge thereby, even though, as Francis Bacon has told us, it will never be surely and finally ours. Yet we persist. Why?

Because that’s our nature. God formed us to do exactly that. The inferences from that observation are the most staggering a human mind can entertain. The frustrating part is that no imaginable experiment can confirm or refute them. We must proceed – we who elect to believe and to proceed from that belief – on faith and hope.

Hope can persist even in the face of the most terrible of “certainties:” that our mortal bodies will someday suffer and die.

Yet that’s not knowledge either. It’s merely what’s happened to every human being who lived and died before us. But just because it’s always happened before doesn’t guarantee that it will always be so. And even if it always will be so, there’s that little conundrum about what comes next.

They who mock Christians and deride our beliefs in an afterlife like to focus on that last business. “How can you know any part of you will survive after death?” they say. I like to reply “How do you know the floor won’t collapse beneath you five seconds from now?” It tends to fluster them, often to the point of walking away.

But that’s where that bit of classical history comes in. We have accounts of a Man who returned from the dead and promised us exactly such an afterlife. We’ve chosen to place our faith in His words as those accounts report them. But we cannot know with certainty that He was correct...or that He existed. Only a very few who saw Him in the flesh could be sure He existed at all...and not even they, as limited and fallible as any of us, could be sure He was what He claimed to be.

We are required to hope.

THOMAS MORE: Listen, Meg. God made the angels to show him splendour, as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. [Robert Bolt, A Man For All Seasons]

It takes a powerful mind to recognize the difference in kind between Man and the lesser orders. It takes an even more powerful mind to realize and appreciate what a gift and a burden it is.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, one of the foremost public intellectuals of our era and better known to the general public as Pope Benedict XVI, has written that faith is inseparable from doubt. Perfect faith that cannot entertain any instant of uncertainty is possible only to the utterly unthinking. Such persons, if any exist, are hardly human beings, for it is our minds and thought processes that qualitatively divide us from the lesser orders.

But if faith cannot be perfect – if doubt is faith’s constant companion – then faith can only be sustained by hope. Indeed, this is why suicide, the deed that expresses the loss of all hope, is the very worst of all sins. One who has lost hope cannot have faith; he has separated himself from God.

Faith can only be sustained by hope.

The liturgical year celebrates Christmas only on December 25, but the Nativity is embedded by implication in all the celebrations and commemorations of the cycle. None of the rest of it would be possible without the Nativity. Granted that it would have little meaning without the Passion and the Resurrection, but those things are premised on the Incarnation of God in human flesh.

All of it – every iota of Christian faith, from the conception of Jesus in the womb of a Nazarene virgin to His Resurrection and Ascension – begins with these words:

    There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.
    And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course, According to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.
    But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
    And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.
    And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.
    And the people waited for Zacharias, and marvelled that he tarried so long in the temple.
    And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless.
    And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house.
    And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.
    And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary.
    And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.
    And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
    And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
    Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
    And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.
    And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

[Luke 1:5-38]

Upon the truth of these words we base our Advent faith...and our hope.

May God bless and keep you all.


FrozenPatriot said...

Well done, Fran. I've formed a great appreciation for your insight and finely honed ability to express it.

You're in our prayers.

Anonymous said...

Fran -

From one who knows -

Your second career is making itself manifest.

Pax tecum - jb

Anonymous said...

Brother Fran... tonight was the church youth group's Christmas play. What a blessing for grandma and I, to see young people with such a fervent desire to share Christ. In a fallen and sinful world, simple faith sustains our hope; and seeing that faith in the eyes of the next generation is blessing indeed. And then, I get home and read what you've written. Thank you and be blessed.
"Did not our hearts burn within us, when He opened up the Scriptures to us?"... two men on the road to Emmaus, as related in Luke's Gospel. Grandpa says... indeed, we are children of the burning heart, as Tozer said. Be blessed. stormfriend