In the final chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King, folded into the account of Frodo and Sam’s final journey is a bit of elvish song:
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees
The starlight on the Western Seas
Those unfamiliar with Tolkien’s lore may not be aware, but the world of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion is a world in which the elves are essentially an exiled people, bearing the aching memory of a longed-for home and an age that has long passed. The song is a haunting reminder of that and underscores the poignancy of the trilogy’s final chapter.
I find myself thinking of that line a lot this Advent, as the world around seems to darken. It has been a far happier Advent season for me this year than last—God drew my mother out of the darkness of chemo and cancer—and yet beyond my personal circle of joy the state of affairs in other corners remains as bleak as ever.
It’s not just the pandemic, though that is part of it: seemingly endless waves of a disease that continues to strike uncomfortably close to home, including a small outbreak at my church of origin. Public and private institutions are breaking down. My friends are struggling: this one is losing a sister to cancer, that one is buried under the crushing weight of a divorce, another faces enormous work stress. On social media, every word seethes with vitriol. I received fewer Christmas cards this year, not due to any personal problems, but simply because so many of the people I loved and knew in my childhood church have grown old and unable to send them any longer.
When you are a very young Christian, you understand the problem of sin. And you understand, in a sort of theological sense, that sin is tied to the fall, to the curse, to the decay and ruin of everything. But as you grow older you grasp that truth a bit more viscerally: you see that the center, as William Butler Yeats put it, cannot hold. You see what is expressed by God in Isaiah 1:5 [AMP]:
Why should you be stricken and punished again [since no change results from it]? You [only] continue to rebel. The whole head is sick. And the whole heart is faint and sick.
I cannot remember where I read it recently—and I wish that I could—but I stumbled across a comment that the virtue of hope in Christians, rendered honestly, looks much less like fluffy optimism than it does a people who set their faces toward God with steely, flintlike determination.
And what I appreciate about Advent most is that it thins the veil just a little bit for those flintlike believers, walking through times like these. The carols, the sense of the united church, the reminder of the ancient truth, the nativity, all of it: these things work together to remind us of what has been, and of what will be. That Christ has come, and will come again.
When I remember that, it is easier to orient myself to what is. And when I say “what is,” I mean the world that is true even when my eyes do not see it: a world in which Christ has already conquered, suffering has been and will be and is being redeemed, in which my purpose is to be a vessel for the light and love of Christ. A world in which celestial beings and all of heaven rejoices over those who return to God, in which the Beginning and the End has drawn Himself into deep intimacy with His creation, in which the Spirit animates me and gives me clarity and joy in spite of all affliction or struggle.
Advent turns my eyes to all I cannot see.
I hope that, this year, whatever you are doing and whatever you are, Advent serves the same purpose. This current world defined by sickness and struggle, loss and sorrow, despair and isolation, is only a shadow of what is. And our ordinary, everyday moving-forwards in the name of Christ have cosmic significance.
We still remember, we who dwell in this far land beneath the trees.
Wishing a blessed Christmas to you and yours.