Advent: Liturgical Derring-do
For the next few weeks I put my series on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin on hold for a few reflections on the liturgical calendar of the Church, and what it suggests about the art of narrative. One Sunday remains in Advent, my focus this week.
Brian’s post this week set me to thinking about the question of suspense when you know the ending. The thoughts took off in several different directions: first, I thought about The Children of Húrin and the inevitability of dark doom that hangs over the story; second, about the inevitability of the endings of most romantic comedies (unpromising as their first meeting was, did you not know, from the moment they met, that Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet would end up together?). My thoughts in this connection came to rest, though, on the subject of Advent.
Now a very brief summary of Advent is in order before I proceed. Excluding the season of Trinity, which is about the present, the liturgical seasons invite us to look into various time telescopes. Lent, for example, tells us to look at Christ in the wilderness (and, behind Him, Israel in the wilderness), Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (and, behind Him, Adam in Eden), and Christ on the cross. In this, Advent follows the liturgical season pattern. Advent is entirely unique, though, in one thing: One of its time telescopes looks toward the future.
And when we look into that telescope we don’t see an indistinct blur – we see a definite future Advent, with quite particular features:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
In short, the readings for Advent tell us the end of the story. Yet the table of Psalms and Lessons for the Christian Year doesn’t do us the courtesy of giving a spoiler alert. What gives?
The answer lies, I think, in the way the Christian view of time, which comes into sharp focus during Advent, inverts the way we instinctively think about time. We instinctively view the present as our fixed point, the future as the spring of suspense, and the past as an already-finished product, viewed through memories faded or distorted (either by rosy or jaded glasses). The scriptures, particularly those to which the Advent lectionary direct us, reverse this. The past and future are the lands rich with good, firmly fixed points; the present is the chief source of suspense.
The practical import of this view of time – for the stories we live and those we tell – is how it pulls us toward derring-do in the present. We know how the story was commenced; we know where it’s going. And if – to take one example – Túrin Turambar looked at the inevitability of his bleak future as a good excuse to wield his black sword with abandon, to slay Orcs by the thousands and, finally, to slay Glaurung the Dragon, how much more should the inevitability of future bliss call us to boldness in the present?
A story which grants and follows the Christian view of time should thus resemble the story of a tightrope walk. The promises of God to our predecessors, fulfilled supremely in God’s mighty acts at his first Advent, hold one end of the tightrope; the promises of the second Advent hold the other end. In the middle of such a story, the suspense will not come from whether one end of the rope or the other will slip, but from the tightrope walker’s present step. Will he lose his balance? Will he get knocked off the rope by a surprise blow? Will he be distracted by the old Ennui, whispering Wormtongue-like in his ear that life really is just one damn thing after another? Or will he keep his eyes fixed ahead, and bravely but carefully place one foot in front of the other?
 Revelation 21:3-4 (ESV)(second evening lesson for the fourth Tuesday in Advent).
 Not, of course, in exhaustive detail. The end surely holds a whole bunch of surprises that will leave us gobsmacked.