Advent IV: Love

This Advent season, I’ve admittedly had a hard time feeling much hope or peace or joy. Political events are such that “depressing” has long since ceased to be an adequate word, this semester I’ve been overwhelmingly busy with everything except the projects that matter most to me, church has been hard rather than nourishing, and I could go on. All through the season I’ve had these words running through my mind:

Then in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on Earth,” I said,
“for hate is strong and mocks the song
of peace on Earth, goodwill to men.”

Yet in all of this I’ve felt that love, improbably, would find a way.

Love seems improbable because of the desperation in our hunger for it, amidst such darkness. For a long time I’ve felt that the answer to my own dark moments was to reach out and show love to someone, almost as a way of insisting to myself and the world that love really does cosmically exist. I do not regret this, but love is more than a rebellion against the void: love is what remains—what survives—after the void has done its worst. It was not up to me to prove that love still existed; rather, I needed to let go and trust that love was there, in spite of everything. Insisting too fiercely on love can be a sign, ironically, of despair, a naming of the hole in one’s heart rather than the only thing that can fill it.

Christmas, the saying goes, is supposed to be more about the gifts you give than the ones you get. Advent, though, is a school of waiting to receive. Kierkegaard writes that people who struggle to understand the “little mystery” of Jesus’s saying that it is more blessed to give than to receive have even less clue about the large mystery, that “it is far more difficult to receive than to give.” [fn1] Specifically, the difficult thing to receive, for Kierkegaard, is compassion. The wisdom of the Advent season is recognizing that we need four weeks (as if that were enough!) to prepare our hearts to receive the love that came into the world with Jesus.

Receiving, finally, is a matter of vulnerability—but it’s a different sort of vulnerability than that hole-in-the-heart felt need for love (which, for me, comes paired with the fear that nobody could look into my heart without running away). Giving love is an attempt to bring safety, security: I insist that the world is loving, after all, which means that something out there will fill that hole in me. If I cast my bread upon the waters, it will return after many days, and by fulfilling my side of the bargain I’ve guaranteed the desired outcome. Opening myself to receive love, though, is all about risk: can I lay myself bare and trust that love will meet me, especially when I have opened myself in vain so many times already? (Kierkegaard is writing about Sara in the Book of Tobit, who married seven times only to have a demon kill each husband before they could consummate the marriage.)

Christmas comes around each year to remind us that love was born, improbably, as the impoverished and illegitimate child of an unwed teenage mother in a backwater of the Roman empire. Advent comes around to renew, again and again, the process of cracking our hearts open enough to trust that the Babe of Bethlehem will, in time, fulfill our hope and expectation that someone could see us for who we are and nevertheless abide with us. Our ability to abide with each other in the meantime rests on the awful risk of such openheartedness, which means dissolving in Jesus the fierce insistence that makes us cling to people in the hope that they will see all the way into our depths. That trusting dissolution paradoxically enables such seeing to spread abroad in a world that hungers for it violently, even though this hunger only meets its fulfillment in the Psalmist’s cry: “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night.” As we await Emmanuel—God with us, for whom the night is as bright as the day—may we let our hearts rest in Jesus so that we can begin to be with each other in the way that (God knows!) we need so badly. Love alone “bears all things,” and, God be praised, it will never come to an end.

[fn1] Søren Kierkegaard, Frygt og Bæven [Fear and Trembling],193. My translation. Thanks to DG for sending me back to this passage after many years.

Comments

  1. I love this post, Jason. Thank you for acknowledging the vulnerability of receiving love. I’m thinking of Ebenezer Scrooge, and how it was essential for him to accept himself as a man worth loving as part of his midnight lessons, and that giving love was perhaps not as hard as allowing himself to be forgiven and loved. “Love is what remains” is a sentiment I will carry with me into 2018, as I suspect this next year might be more of the same, but I need to confront it better than I have 2017.

  2. Yeah, 2018 is probably going to be rough. We’ve all got to find in ourselves new resources for giving and receiving love. I think that cynicism hurts the capacity to receive more than the capacity to give.

  3. Olde Skool says:

    Thank you for this, Jason. Mapping the Kierkegaard onto Advent is something I will remember for a very long time.

  4. Yes. That was a true gift from my friend.

  5. Thanks Jason.