Paradox: Advent Word 13

John Donne (1572-1631) by Isaac Oliver

Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit—Divine Subcommittee for Selection of Advent Words—are having a good chuckle as they watch from on high the consternation of avid participants in their program, all of whom are scratching our heads as we ponder the juxtaposition of yesterday’s word, patience, with that of today, hasten. How are we to shift gears so quickly from 0 to 60? Jesus mutters to his ghostly companion, “Gotta keep ’em on their toes!” And then comes the clever response: “Hurry up and wait, as the fella says!”

Indeed, this strange confluence of opposing advice was the first thing that entered my head as I began to think about what to write today. But suddenly, this seeming contradiction appeared appropriate indeed to our lives as Christians, and I decided to focus on a different word altogether for today’s meditation–paradox.

Christianity is a faith with paradox at its core. The very nature of the Trinity is paradoxical, a conundrum we can’t wrap our heads around–three Gods, one person. Jesus said, “The last shall be first, and the first, last” (Matthew 20:16) and “Whosoever loses his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25). Paul said, “When I am weak, I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10), and after listing all his superior qualifications as a Jewish leader, “Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ” (Philippians 3:7).

The prayer of St. Francis concludes with the central Christian paradox:

For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

And the Metaphysical poetry of John Donne, notably Holy Sonnet XIV (c. 1610), is replete with the paradoxes that animate our faith:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

But we are in the midst of Advent, awaiting the annual celebration of the Incarnation of our Lord and anticipating his coming again in glory. What have we to do with beautiful but arcane poetry or complex philosophical concepts?

Very much indeed. For the fulfillment of our Advent hope is the coming of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords to the unlikeliest of places, a manger in Bethlehem.

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