Friday, December 9, 2011

Advent Hope: A Meditation Weaving Together Resources Provided by Blog Friends

We've had snow here this week, unusually early for our area.  As I type these words, I can still see a lacy scrim of white on the low roof of our neighbors' shed to the south of our sunroom.  For me, the early snowfall intensifies Advent expectation--the silence that ensues after snow blankets everything in the still hours of night, the sense of being rarely in sync with all those areas depicted on Christmas cards made for some other (and impossible) clime, where snow lies everywhere as Mary and Joseph swaddle Jesus in the manger.

And as I think about Advent these days, I thought I'd share with readers a few more resources from the treasure trove of creative riches that seem to be coming my way lately.  Here's another video featuring that Austrian a cappella group, Schnittpunktvokal, to which I linked several days ago, with their rendition of the traditional German hymn "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen."  This one has them singing the equally traditional hymn "Stille Nacht" (and the embedding feature is turned off, so I can't embed the video in this posting, but can link you to it).

I like the group's singing of the Franz Gruber hymn--very much so--for all the reasons I discussed in my previous posting.  It's reverential and sweet, and, for me, captures the spirit of the song beautifully.  There's a spareness and simplicity in the a cappella performance that seem to me to complement "Silent Night" perfectly.  This video contains several other carols following "Stille Nacht," by the way.

And as I mention musical resources for seasonal meditation, I also want to recommend very highly the website of a regular reader of Bilgrimage, Fran Schultz, at Reverbnation.  Fran shares her gorgeous compositions freely online, and right now, she has a slate of Advent-themed pieces at her site.  Spend some time at Fran's site, and you will definitely not be disappointed, if you're seeking music to dispose the spirit to reflection.

I'm also indebted to a fellow blogger and friend of this blog for the recommendation of some literary resources that I want to mention as well in connection with Advent.  Some weeks back, I learned from Crystal Watson at her Perspective site (a link to which is in my blog list here) of an author, Connie Willis, whose novels I've been reading since Crystal blogged about Willis's Doomsday Book (and here).  

I've now read Doomsday and the subsequent set of novels Blackout and All Clear, which won a Hugo Prize this year.  Doomsday also won a Hugo and a Nebula.  The common theme of all three books is that they deal with time travel, and employ the same set of characters who travel from Oxford back into various periods of the past from the late 21st century.  All also exhibit that uniquely English brio mixing comedy of manners, impossible whodunit plot twists, keen recognition of period artifacts and markers, and something that I can only call a humanism whose roots run deep in British spirituality.  The profound emphasis on tolerating and including even--especially--the troublingly different . . . .

And it's in the latter respect that I have been thinking about Blackout and All Clear as Advent-themed novels.  The diptych is set in England during World War II (that is, it alternates between Oxford in the late 21st century and various moments of the war to which Oxford has sent historians back in time to study the war).  I don't intend to provide a plot summary here (you'd have to read the novels, in any case, to get any idea of their tortuous and highly entertaining plots).

My point is to note something that strikes me, Advent-wise, as I think about them.  There is, running through them, an accentuated sense of the absolute contingency of historical events: for want of a nail, etc.  In history, everything matters.  No decision or action, no matter how microcosmic, is without momentous import for the sum of all decisions and all actions that constitute historical narrative.  The wings of a single hummingbird beating on yon side of a planet can induce a typhoon on our side of the world.

And in dominant strands of British Christian spirituality on which Willis draws in these novels, that recognition is interwoven with the recognition that the tiniest, the least bruited about, acts of kindness can change the course of an entire life.  And therefore of history itself.  This recognition of the irreducible import of even the smallest act of kindness flows together with another affirmation predominant in traditional British spirituality: I'm speaking of Julian of Norwich's confidence that, because the world is a hazelnut resting in the hands of its loving maker, all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.  In the unfathomably complex matrix of interactions, choices, and deeds that make history, no act of kindness is ever beside the point, because the entire matrix in all its complexity rests in the hands of its maker.  And that maker is love.

All of these insights run through Willis's two novels about the war.  And in my view, they have Advent significance.  The hope on which Advent hinges is hope premised on a series of infinitesimal contingencies that, in the view of those whose faith is shaped by the gospel narratives, profoundly altered the course of history.   Contingencies like the uprooting of a young couple expecting a child from their hometown, as a decree went forth for all the world to be taxed.  So that the young couple with little control over the circumstances of their daily life, when a decree goes forth from the man who commands the world, travel to a city rich with resonance for those awaiting the messiah's arrival.

And a baby is born there in a byre and laid in a manger, because one door after another has shut in the face of his parents as they seek shelter in their travels.  And on these trifling events well known to poor and dispossessed people everywhere in history throughout time, which register in no way at all in the corridors of those who command the world, history turns and cracks wide open, so that angels descend to mingle with shepherds and their flocks as they announce the dawning of a new era of human history, in which the last will finally be first and the hungry will have enough to eat.

Advent hope: hung on the frailest of pegs that, except for the incalculable contingency of one decision and one act added to another, wouldn't be there at all.  Hope hanging above all on the willingness of a young woman of no import to the world in which she lived to give birth to hope, though she is not yet married when a messenger from God invites her to accept this destiny.  

Hope that hangs on one tiny act hinged on another--above all, on small acts of kindness whose only reason to be there in the picture at all is that people of little import often choose unexpectedly to help others of no import, giving birth to hope in the world.  Whose almost invisible wings, so small and so weak as to be well-nigh indecipherable, can beat up currents of change that sometimes sweep the mighty from their thrones.

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