The Advent tension is a way of learning again that God is God: that between even our deepest and holiest longing and the reality of God is a gap which only grace can cross.

Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness     

I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Road this Advent, and am struck by some thematic parallels between this bleak book and these dark December days of longing and foreboding.

The correlations are subtle, tenuous, even arguable, perhaps; and not intended, I’m confident, by the author himself. Maybe it’s more like a shared sensibilitity: Advent’s unflinching gaze at the trouble and pain to come, given clear-eyed expression in the ancient prophets’ warnings; the sober, spare narration of terrifying desolation in The Road; and the palpable urgency that informs and animates both.

Yet hope is wrested from the scattered wreckage: Advent’s apocalyptic warnings locate the strange mission of a strange Messiah who’s “winnowing fork is in his hand,” but whose own dying will undo forever the power of sin and death; the violence and despair of McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic landscape and the unspoken calamity that created it are not given the last word.

Hope and human goodness and a glimmer of divine grace seep through the cracks of the scorched, dead earth. “You shall fear disaster no more,” says the Prophet Zephaniah on the Third Sunday of Advent. McCarthy’s nameless father and son seem to claim this foretelling for themselves as their savage, beautiful story comes to a close.

In Advent we walk a tightrope, taut (and fraught) with the tension of living between the times — between the “already” of the first Advent of God and the “not yet” of its completion. The Advent scriptures and liturgies and hymns bring this tension alive, teaching us “something of God’s own simultaneous ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to all religious aspiration and expectation” (Williams).

But tension — along with ambiguity, paradox, and mystery — are not what we want from our religion. Middle class Christian piety pays a kind of lip service to Advent (the wreath is a nice touch, we think), but darkness, foreboding, “unquenchable fire”? Please. We are on our way to the creche, for heaven’s sake. The tree’s been up for two weeks. You’re scaring the children with all this talk of vipers and the wrath to come (Luke 3:7).

But Advent asks us to see and speak truthfully; to reckon honestly with our troubled times; to share in the righteous anger of a God who “will save the lame and gather the outcast, and change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (Zephaniah 3:19). 

We make the journey through Advent a bit like travelers on an unknown road, but not as those without hope. For in the fullness of time the desert will bloom and rejoice, our weeping will turn to joy, and all flesh, we pray with fervent Advent longing, shall see it together.