“Because I do not hope to turn again.” So begins T.S. Eliot’s poem, Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the penitential season of Lent leading to Easter, to new life, the Resurrection. Advent, too, is a penitential season leading to Christmas in the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ and to the renewing of our lives in the meaning of his nativity. Psalm 80 is one of the great psalms of Advent and in contrast to Eliot’s poem it is full of the hope of turning. Its recurring refrain calls out to God to “turn us again, … show the light of thy countenance, and we shall be whole.” The refrain is marked with increasing degrees of intensity in the fourfold invocation of God. “O God,’’ then twice, “O God of hosts,” and finally, “O Lord God of hosts.” It is about an increased awakening to the mystery of God.
The spiritual insight of Advent is profoundly philosophical. How can we find what we seek and desire without already in some sense knowing what we seek and desire? This is Meno’s dilemma in Plato’s dialogue by that name. It leads to the realization that God is at once prior and beyond as that upon which our knowing and being depend. Our turning is predicated upon God’s turning; our turning to God and God’s turning to us are really one and the same motion. Advent awakens us to the wonder of this twofold turning. “Then Jesus turned,” we heard in the reading in Chapel this week.
That turning leads to the beginning of the cascade of questions that define the Advent season. The questions of Advent stir up hope against despair. They awaken us to the desire for the Good, for what is always beyond and yet ever present. Such is the radical meaning of God’s turning to us and God’s turning us. “What do you seek?” Jesus asks in the moment of his turning to us. The disciples in turn ask, “where dwellest thou?” How do we abide with that which we most truly seek, and which is most truly desired?
The reading of part of Psalm 80 along with the Gospel reading from the first chapter of John’s Gospel complements last week’s meditation upon the Law in Psalm 119 and in the Exodus story of the Ten Commandments. These readings all belong to the sense of endings and beginnings. As against a merely linear way of proceeding, of one thing after another after another, these readings recall us to the spiritual and philosophical insight of our constant circling around and into the mystery of God. That beginning again is our hope, our peace, and our joy.
This week brings us to the Christian form of that beginning again. Such is the meaning of Advent: God coming to us without which there can be no coming to God. Advent seeks the purification of our desires by awakening us to the absolute Good that is God, the Good which is beyond all and every form of being and knowing as that upon which they all depend. God is nothing, no thing, not an object, not one thing among other things. This is one of the great lessons of the spiritual traditions. When we forget that then God becomes nothing more than the figment of our imaginations, a human invention and construct. Advent counters and corrects that view. Advent is the light and love of God coming to us in word, in mind, in judgement, and, in the Christian understanding, as the Word made flesh which brings those aspects together into one.
The great German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, observes that it is the nature of God to be known, to be manifest, and that this is an especially important principle for Christianity. Drawing explicitly upon Plato and Aristotle, he notes that the sharing of light does not diminish the light but increases it. It is a nice analogy. God is neither more nor less in making himself known in turning to us without which we cannot turn to him. It is the nature of the Good to be made known as that which is beyond and yet enlightens and is the cause of the being and knowing of all things.
The increase of Covid-19 outbreaks in the Halifax area presents certain challenges to the School. But in the darkness of nature’s year, we do well to be reminded of something more and greater coming to us that counters our fears and worries, namely, God as Word and Light in whom we learn of hope and peace and joy. “In thy light shall we see light”, as the Psalmist reminds us. Perhaps nowhere is that more concentrated for us than in the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols established at King’s College, Cambridge, just after the devastations of the First World War. We hope to have several modified versions of that traditional and powerful service which will involve students as readers, as musicians, and as servers.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy