“Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man…You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time…Let us rejoice in this grace…For what greater grace could God have made to dawn on us to make his only Son become the Son of Man, so that a son of man might in his turn becom God? As if this were merited; ask for its reason, for its justification, and see whether you will find any other answer but sheer grace.”
Advent is rough. It is taking place when the nights are getting longer, when the weather gets awful, and when New England enters its most awful phase in terms of weather. Yet, it’s my favorite time of the year, speaking liturgically. I never thought much of Christmas growing up, in fact I hated it for a time. Now, it is a time that I look forward to, and that is no small part due to the symbolism of Advent and my growing reliance on the Doctrine of the Incarnation.
From Shadow to Light
It makes sense to have a period in the winter where we think about our coming from darkness into light. As I mentioned, these long nights can really get to a man. How great it is, during the darkest time of the year, that we have a celebration that celebrates with merriment and a light that shineth in darkness.
For a good overview, Dom Prosper Guéranger has a pretty good overview on the history of Advent in the Roman Rite. In The Liturgical Year, Dom Prosper notes that Advent as a time for preparation can be found going back early in the Church and was often treated as a “little Lent.” Fourth Century France had already established a time of fasting and almsgiving, all to prepare our hearts to receive Christ as a child at Christmas. The West has relaxed many of its customs since at least the fourteenth century, but we still use this time as period of penance and also to recall the world before the Incarnation. Dom Prosper notes:
“The holy Church, therefore during Advent, awaits in tears and with ardour the arrival of her Jesus in His first coming…These longings for the Messias expressed by the Church are not a mere commemoration of the desires of the ancient Jewish people…From all eternity, the prayers of the ancient Jewish people and the prayers of the Christian Church ascend together to the prescient hearing of God; and it was after receving and granting them, that He sent, in the appointed time, that blessed Dew upon the earth, which made it bud forth the Saviour.”
(The Liturgical Year: Advent, p. 29)
So, yes, Advent is a period of awaiting, and we wait like those before Christ were waiting and it’s also symbolic of or waiting for the return of Christ in Glory. Or, as Fr. Nnamdi Moneme, OMV put it in his first Sermon of Advent:
The waiting of Advent is more than just waiting for Christ’s return in glory. We wait for Christ’s glorious return by making use of the graces of the redemption, graces that He gained for us in His first coming in flesh to this world, to renew and to fulfill the promises that we made to Him on the day of our Baptism. Advent is a time of thinking and reflection on how faithful God has been to us, faithfully renewing and fulfilling His promises to us in good or in bad times
So, in this time when the nights get overly long and lead me to some strange contemplation, I found that it’s a good time to consider all of life and what it means.
The Incarnation Gives Us Meaning
This all is hard for me to put into words. I’m not saying that the Incarnation is the perfect meditation to ward off all dark thoughts. I can’t make that claim. But, with my own mind, which is often shouting with the dark thoughts, the Incarnation is that point of belief in me that has kept me going.
I mentioned in a previous post that I once had one of my most intense let’s not talks on Christmas Eve. Those talks will be familiar to many of you who have had to deal with mental anguish as they are those moments when you can only say, “Let’s not end my life today, even though living is painful.” That night is a painful one to recall, as you can imagine. What kept me going? Well, for whatever weird reason, it’s been the idea that God became man so, as Augustine and Athanasius said, so that we might become God—that is, that we share in an eternal unity with God that is accomplished by this even we call the Incarnation.
I posted that quotation from Augustine at the beginning because it illustrates a point that has saved my life: there is no bloody reason for why God would create us, come down to us, and for Him to take on our flesh. Or, as Terry Eagleton summed it up, God did this for “the hell of it.” If we ask what merited this great gift, if we ask what we did to merit it, we’d find no answer except for grace.
The Incarnation is weird, scandalous even. We say that God did not come to appear as a ruler; He did not come into the body of an Adonis and fight a great war. God came down as an infant and was birthed in a cave by a Virgin with a fugitive carpenter for a foster father. How often do we look at a Nativity Set this time of year and reflect on just how strange it is.
My dear reader, I don’t expect much of this to make sense. I’ve studied it for years, and it still strikes me dumb. However, this central even is the great joy of Christianity. Jesus took on our nature in order to redeem it and I know of no greater thought that has given me comfort these last eleven years, even as my depression would abandon all other hope. I still take my medication and see a counselor, but when I say that the love of Christ has saved my life, that is not a mere hyperbole. When I had those let’s not talks, it was knowing that Christ took on our nature and our pains, and that it was for no other reason than for love, that kept me alive that night and the following morning.
Again, I know this is not a universal comfort. I would never say to an atheist that this is the reason to convert, but I would gladly say that it’s why I remain a son of the Church. As we continue in this season of Advent, I pray you all will take the time to reflect on the weirdness of the Incarnation. Let it scandalize you, even. But, please, whatever you do, do not treat it as just another doctrine you memorized or just another belief. This is the time to come out of our darkness and that may mean even the darkness of our own minds, as it is often for me. However, at the end of all dark paths is this promise of Christ. He is among us, He has been born, and He shall never depart.
I now leave you with my favorite reading for Christmas, from G.K Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man:
A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded…
There is in that alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down. It would be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast. It is profoundly true to say that after that moment there could be no slaves. There could be and were people bearing that legal title, until the Church was strong enough to weed them out, but there could be no more of the pagan repose in the mere advantage to the state of keeping it a servile state. Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man’s end. All this popular and fraternal element in the story has been rightly attached by tradition to the episode of the Shepherds; the hinds who found themselves talking face to face with the princes of heaven. But there is another aspect of the popular element as represented by the shepherds which has not perhaps been so fully developed; and which is more directly relevant here.
Men of the people, like the shepherds, men of the popular tradition, had everywhere been the makers of the mythologies. It was they who had felt most directly, with least check or chill from philosophy or the corrupt cults of civilization, the need we have already considered; the images that were adventures of the imagination; the mythology that was a sort of search the tempting and tantalizing hints of something half human in nature; the dumb significance of seasons and special places. They had best understood that the soul of a landscape is a story and the soul of a story is a personality. But rationalism had already begun to rot away these really irrational though imaginative treasures of the peasant; even as systematic slavery had eaten the peasant out of house and home. Upon all such peasantries everywhere there was descending a dusk and twilight of disappointment, in the hour when these few men discovered what they sought. Everywhere else Arcadia was fading from the forest. Pan was dead and the shepherds were scattered like sheep. And though no man knew it, the hour was near which was to end and to fulfill all things; and though no man heard it, there was one far-off cry in an unknown tongue upon the heaving wilderness of the mountains. The shepherds had found their Shepherd.
image: Sarowen via Flickr
For you partake of that last offered cup,
Or disappear into the potter’s ground.
When the man comes around.
-Johnny Cash, The Man Comes Around
Yesterday would have been Johnny Cash’s 83rd birthday. In years past, when I was thin enough to fit into it (thanks food binges and booze!) I would wear my black suit on that day and find a bar to toast the man. This was especially effective at the Waterloo in Louisville, CO which is a giant memorial to The Man in Black.
To say the least, the man has had a rather large impact on my life. Of course, I heard him in childhood due to my dad’s love of all things music. That passion for his music grew and became something of my own during my high school punk/rock phase where I was seeking anyone that could exhibit the raw emotions and the spare lyrics that I found in The Sex Pistols and Dillinger Escape Plan. Of course, as someone who grew up Evangelical but always struggled with doubt, he was many times a reminder of the “beauty, ever ancient and ever new” that I was always seeking but not finding.
Thanks to a Cash marathon for his birthday, as well as a Twitter conversation with Dawn Eden, I have decided to call this A Johnny Cash Lent. Stay with me, this will make sense if a bit.
Since our last Easter, which marked my tenth anniversary as a confirmed Catholic, a lot has happened. I grew in my job as an editor, published two well-received articles on depression, and lost a friend and mentor. Despite that a lot was going well in my life, I had to face some challenges within my own soul and confront some uncomfortable demons. I entered the Church with confidence and exuberance, but by my tenth anniversary I found many of my prayers were a rant at God while also trying to remember to praise Him. In prior years, I drowned these thoughts and voices in booze, sensuality, and everything that goes with it. This year, I found writing, prayer, and contemplation was far healthier but also quite a bit more difficult. If I’ve learned anything in my 30’s it’s that the slow death of self-medication is far easier than trying to wrestle with your own demons in the hope that life is worth living.
While my life, compared to Johnny Cash and many others, has been incredibly easy, his music has meant a lot to me. In his lyrics I found an Old Testament man strumming the steel strings of a guitar, singing once about how “God’s Gonna Cut you Down” while also begging “Lead me Father, with the staff of life/Give me the strength for a song” and it was all from the same man who knew well both the disappointment of his own life as well as what Graham Greene called “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”
Cash grew up listening to and signing the songs from his mother’s hymnal. In fact, one of the reasons why he left Sun Records was because of Sam Phillips reluctance to let him record Gospel. He was publicly a Christian who wrote moving words about Jesus and his own struggle to grow closer to Him. When asked about his faith Cash would say, “The gospel of Christ must always be an open door with a welcome sign for all.” However, he was also not shy about the complications of faith and life. In one interview he said:
“I confess right up front that I’m the biggest sinner of them all. But my faith in God has always been a solid rock that I’ve stood on, no matter where I was or what I was doing. I was a bad boy at times, but God was always there for me, and I knew that. I guess maybe I took advantage of that.”
In Johnny Cash one can find faith, but it was complicated. Even in his infamous amphetamine habit, he saw that he was trying to escape something. “I used them to escape and they worked pretty well when I was younger,” he admitted in the same interview. “But they devastated me physically, emotionally, and spiritually. That third one, spiritually, is the one that hurts so much—separation from God.” Even in his benders, he knew that he couldn’t escape and only in Christ was he to find that solid rock he’d been searching for. Though he was not even looking for God, he saw that God was still looking for him, “There was no line of communication. But that came back. He came back. And I came back.”
As I said, Cash’s faith was complicated. However, isn’t it always? Aren’t we all a lot like the young Augustine, praying daily make me chaste, Lord, but not yet! As Christians, especially confirmed Catholic with the Sacraments, we know that Grace is always there and available to us and that God hears our cries, but how often have taken advantage of that time we think we have?
If I could go back eleven years ago and talk to my younger self I’d give a lot of advice; “See a therapist, don’t stop taking your medication, and try to go for a walk once-in-a-while.” However, I think I’d more likely tell my young, idiot self, the wisdom of The Man in Black, “It takes a real man to live for God—a lot more man than to live for the devil.”
Lent is a time where we join Christ in the desert and ultimately prepare ourselves to remember his death and resurrection. We also take this time to remember our own sins and where we have fallen short. It can be hard, dangerous and exhausting. Like Christ, we’ll be tempted and many of us will fall like we have oh so many times before. That is the real challenge of Lent: to come face-to-face with yourself and to be able to turn that face to light of Christ. To live for God is going to take real courage, but grace is sufficient to give us the strength to stand when life exhausts every ounce of energy we had.
This Lent, let’s be more like Johnny Cash! Let’s admit our faults and our shortcomings but do it with the confidence that they are not what defines us. Rather, let those challenges give us a tender heart to stand up for the weak and displaced and be a symbol of God’s mercy. Let this Lent be the time where you’re not shy about your faith but also willing to meet everyone where they are and offer the love and friendship this world so terribly needs.
As Good Friday approaches you may don black and I hope you can sing, along with Johnny, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
Nota Bene: Of course nobody can write a post about Cash without mentioning “Hurt.” I appreciate an old artist who is aware of his mortality and especially enjoyed the “Hurt” music video because he strikes me as doing what I imagine every writer wants to do: write his own ending, and make it sound like the Book of Ecclesiastes