Advent III: rocked by the Infinite

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.

Rejoice in the Lord alway, and again I say, rejoice

The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad . . . ; and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.

Advent customs vary. In my parish church we have honored the third Sunday in Advent as Gaudete Sunday for many years, though this year we gave the theme of rejoicing no special emphasis, and we kept to violet colors except for a rose candle in our advent wreath. Just as well—I’m having a solemn advent too this year. As St. Paul instructs, I rejoice alway, liking the locution from the KJV—and I like it that Gaudete Sunday connects me with centuries of of catholic practice.

Do you love the world? I do. To be a Christian humanist, as I am, is to love the world and one’s fellow creatures as the gift of God. As the old hymn says, “All the world is God’s own field.” I’ve just been rereading a poem I love by Stanley Kunitz. It’s called “The Long Boat.” You can find it here. I first found “The Long Boat” on the wall by the elevator at Prairie Lights in Iowa City. It was first published as a broadside—the image I’ve referenced above shows it—which is a little larger than ‘double folio’ size. Framed, it is larger still. I initially thought it was a Prairie Lights broadside, but it was published by Norton in 1995. Reading it for the first time was a religious experience. I have passed it many times since, reread it, rather like touching a mezuzah. We don’t see God, but sometimes we know that we’ve been seen, known perhaps—the knowledge and its memory remain fearful and joyous at the same time.

And maybe one has to be almost eighty, as I am, to understand how one can rejoice in being reminded so of one’s love of the world as one anticipates leaving it. It has not been meny years since a student asked, ‘If we’re not rational actors who are supposed to maximize our utility, what are we?’ I gave him an answer he may not have expected, ‘How about creatures made in the image of God?’ I asked him later in the conversation if he thought economics provided a total explanatiion of the world and our human place in it. His reply was, ‘No, but I wish it did.’ I think his point may have been that our human choices might be simpler for us if economics taught us all we need to know.

A small digression: I have to say that I loved this student and thought highly of him as well. I’d never have asked him such a question otherwise. But we were in a Jesuit classroom after all, and besides, there are times when one is given a large teaching moment. I seized that one, and of course I didn’t press for a defense of, I wish I did. He already knew what he meant, and his classmates knew as well. It was a thing for them to ponder in their hearts. What occasioned the conversation was Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Two Economies,” which opens with Wes Jackson’s claim that only the Kingdom of God is a truly comprehensive economy.

The last lines of Stanley Kunitz’s poem land me square in the middle of the Kingdom of God for the same reason that Wes Jackson evoked it in the conversation that Berry reports. When I think that I love the world so much that I don’t want to leave it I’m not expressing a triviality. When Socrates gets to a point like this in Plato’s dialogues, he too resorts to myth making, as does Jesus. I love the the anglo-saxon word for parable; It is bigspell, a distant cognate I like to think, to German Beispiel, meaning “example.” I love the homeliness of it, the use of the soft power of storytelling when argument reaches the end of its tether.

As the writer of Hebrews says, we may not see the world brought into subjection to us—indeed it will never answer to our wishes—but we see Jesus. Orthodox Christians make a gesture of respect at the mention of the incarnation in the creeds and in the eucharistic prayer. This is the part to which the writer of Hebrews alludes when he describes Jesus as having been made “a Little lower than the angels.” Whatever may be true about worlds beyond this one, it has always seemed to me that a substantial part of Jesus’ mission was to reprove a particular sort of worldliness in the here and now, the very sort to which the writer of Hebrews alludes when he admits we do not see the world at our feet. Indeed, the world addressed by the writer of Hebrews was a terrible place, full of violence and grevious injustice, ruled by petty tyrants and an emperor who aspired to be a god. But in the midst of that terrible politics, Jesus advised those who listened to him that they feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick—following his example, another use of soft power.

As I’m finishing this, Gaudete Sunday has passed. I’ve had an opportunity to rejoice in the Lord, albeit to do it slant, as Emily Dickinson said we poets should tell the truth. I am resolved again to cease striving to subdue the world, but rather to live within it as a brother to the sun and moon, as St. Francis put it. I am disheartened by the election of Donald Trump, but I do not share the hope of fellow Democrats that Trump can be denied the presidency by the electoral college—nor should he be. The Trump presidency is what our political system has given us in this historical moment. Our response as Christians who disagree should be to continue our work for social and economic justice using all means of soft power at our disposal and to undertake a work of persuasion that will seek to restore good will in a society that has for the present, at least, by intention or default: embraced neo-fascism.

2 thoughts on “Advent III: rocked by the Infinite

  1. It appears there might be some good news on the “subdue the world” front.
    “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. John 16:33

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