Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Lamp-Post and the World in Need of Light

Reinvent Advent (part four)
An Excerpt from an Essay written for Theology of Creation

The leaves have fallen. The grass is brown and coarse. The light has given up its early mornings and early evenings to cold, to dark. It is as if Death has hung its cloak upon the sun, and the grey and dormant garment has settled lightly but solemnly over the earth. These are the sights in which we look for and to advent. It is a poignant setting, a fitting context for a journey into a creational redemptive theology. The advent story, draped in death, is one that whispers of something new. It offers and speaks life, the hope for it, and the need of it.

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined" (Isaiah 9:2). This passage speaks of a very specific, concrete experience of darkness not unlike that which we see and hear and feel with the coming of winter, though its context is a death born of oppression rather than fallen leaves, and a chill wrought by exile rather than a few more hours of night. It was in this darkness, to the people who lived and walked and made their lives in its shrouds, that light came. And it is no accident that it is light that came, light that was spoken over and into this place and this people. Regardless as to whether darkness is oppression, sin, chaos, nothingness, death, or merely the absence of function and purpose and relationship, it was light that God spoke first and in the beginning, light that God brought to bear to create.

The incarnation is first and foremost an act of creation, whether ex nihilo or otherwise. Is it any wonder that John begins his own advent narrative by returning to the moment of creation and retelling the story so that we might understand the coming of Christ? The very nature of conception and birth is our corporeal participation in God's creative work, his creative charge, and his creative blessing. It is in keeping with that initial design of ongoing, developing potential, re-creation, and the begetting of something new, something different, something more. The nature of Isaiah's prophetic voice is its link between God's first creative word of light to the light of Christ. The advent story captures in its stark simplicity the strains of suffering and darkness alongside the disruptive wonder of creation, and the exquisite yet painful beauty that is the place where these two meet: Redemption.

Consider the juxtaposition as presented in The Magician's Nephew, by C. S. Lewis. The scene is darkness, a distinct absence of movement or life, like an empty stage in a theater in the off-season, closed and locked-up tight. Several characters have stumbled into the scene and stand a moment in the emptiness.
In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing ... Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them ... There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it ... Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count ... cold, tingling, silvery voices. And the second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars (p. 116-117). 
In the midst of that exquisite moment of creation, there stood among the witnesses she who was the potential for this new world's suffering:
Suddenly the Witch stepped boldly out toward the Lion. It was coming on, always singing, with a slow heavy pace. It was only twelve yards away. She raised her arm and flung the iron bar straight at its head. Nobody ... could have missed at that range. The bar struck the Lion fair between the eyes (p. 127). 
The reader understands at this point exactly how this evil, this potential suffering, this risk has come. It was a child's mistake, his sin, foolishness, and selfishness that brought the Witch to Narnia in that moment. The Christian studying the story of our own creation gains a greater insight. The very nature of God's creative work is that of giving and allowing the voice of Other to speak, to have an impact on God himself. Thus, the scandal of creation is that it allows the same potential for suffering to find its voice, too. Even as light is spoken into the dark places - in the creation story, in Isaiah's story, and in the story of advent - the potential for suffering is a painful reality, the great risk of God's profound move to create.

Yet, Lewis' tale goes on to describe a remarkable image of redemption, redemption as the effect of creation on the first act of evil:
The bar struck the Lion fair between the eyes. It glanced off and fell with a thud in the grass. The lion came on ...
"Hullo! What's that?" said Digory. He had darted forward...
"I say, Polly," he called back. "Do come and look."
It was a perfect little model of a lamp-post, about three feet high but lengthening, and thickening in proportion, as they watched it; in fact growing just as the trees had grown.
"It's alive too - I mean, it's lit..."
"Don't you see?" said Digory. "This is where the bar fell - the bar she tore off the lamp-post at home. It sank into the ground and now it's coming up as a young lamp-post" (p. 130-131).
The beauty of this image - the image of something dead and lifeless, a bit of metal torn from its own purpose for that of destruction, offered in violence with the intention of death - is that creation is not stopped. It has its way with even this substance, this malicious act, and the result is redemption. The result is new life, light, and purpose, not just in the moment of re-creation, but in the ongoing story of re-creation. This is the lamp-post that greets Lucy generations later. This is the light that guides her into - and here is the image of darkness again - a Narnia in perpetual winter, a Narnia in need of life and light, a Narnia in need of ... advent ... in need of Christmas.

This is what I consider as the leaves fall and the days grow dark; we are a world in need of light, in need of advent, in need of Christmas.