Advent begins this evening. It has always been my favourite liturgical season. This might not be entirely unrelated to the fact that my birthday always falls during it. It may also have something to with my liking for the season’s liturgical music, which I think is stormingly good. One example here. One to follow as an incentive to read until the end:
But I think that there are perfectly good politico-theological reasons to like Advent. The season has much to say about how Christian faith understands human history. It is all too easy for religion to become a way of trying to escape from history. At times when the state of the world is changing and uncertain, it is easy to fall back on the idea that what really matters is some spiritual dimension, understood as completely discontinuous with the flesh-and-blood, changing and deacying reality we see around us. It is too difficult to change the world, let’s save my soul instead. Marx accurately described religion of this sort as ‘the imaginary sun which humanity revolves around when it cannot revolve around itself’. Against such escapism, Christianity’s account of salvation is not one in which we are saved from human history, but one in which we are saved through human history. We are saved by the life, death and resurrection of a first century Palestinian Jew. We are being saved, as we celebrate the sacraments and work in the world for the coming Kingdom of justice and peace, and we will be saved at the end of all things. Advent is about looking forward to the future Kingdom with hope, not in order to ignore the here-and-now, but in order to put it into perspective. Sometimes things do seem pretty hopeless. The message of Advent is that they are not; God has the last word in history. So it’s worth persisting in our prayers and our struggles.
Part and parcel of this is having the proper attitude towards the future. One phenomenon which worries me intensely at the moment is that of many Christians, including not a few Catholics, going along with a revival of a deeply pessimistic cultural conservatism. According to these folk something terrible has gone wrong in human history, round about the 1960s. Things used to be much better (the narrative tends to ignore slavery, cholera and the non-existence of dental anaesthetics) and it is the job of Christians to restore what has been lost. It rarely strikes people that this is a profoundly odd frame of mind for the Pilgrim People of God to have got themselves into. We are journeying towards the future. It is in the future that we will be saved. And it is in and through the intervening history that our salvation will be worked out. This doesn’t mean that we are naively optimistic, or that we think all change is good change. But it does mean that we ought to be people of hope, rather than fear. There is a lot of fear in contemporary Christianity – everything from Harry Potter books to social democratic governments is, for some at least, a deadly foe luring us towards the pit. And yet, the Advent Prose reminds us, ‘I will save you. Do not be afraid’.
But if there is a ‘conservative’ tendency to get stuff wrong with respect to Advent, there is equally a besetting fault of ‘liberalism’. In some quarters there is a besetting fear of something called ‘triumphalism’. This again is odd. Not all triumphs are bad. It is, of course, bad to celebrate the triumph of dictators, or the triumph of a corporation in a court case against the victims of pollution, say. And, in the history of Christianity, there has certainly been a triumphalism of a worrying sort about the earthly Church, confusing what we are now with what we will be at the end. A lot of Catholic thinking about the Church since Vatican II has sought to respond to this last triumphalism. But some triumphalism is good. And there is a proper triumphalism about Advent. One hymn has it that,
Every eye shall now behold him,
Robed in glorious majesty,
Those who set at nought and sold him,
Pierced and nailed him to the tree,
Shall the true Messiah see.
Now there is an anti-semitism about the original intended meaning of these words which needs to be acknowledged and disowned. However, once we read ‘those.. who nailed him to the tree’ as being all those who conspire against human flourishing, those who deal out pain and misery (that is, all of us to an extent), something interesting can be seen to be going on. There is a triumphalism here. And who is it who triumphs? Another verse says:
Those dear tokens of his passion,
Still his dazzling body bears.
It is Christ, the crucified God, who suffered in solidarity with the victims of every age, who triumphs. According to this vision, it is not the forces of sin and death who will have the last word in human history, but the force of Love. That is what we look forward to in Advent. And that, I submit, is a good triumphalism