The Common Good
December 2011

'Say, Say the Light'

by Julie Polter | December 2011

Advent loops past the second coming to the first -- and to us, stuck waiting in the mud of existence.

EVERY FEW YEARS I rediscover a song by R.E.M., "You are the Everything." It juxtaposes despair over the state of things ("Sometimes I feel like I can't even sing / I'm very scared for this world") with deceptively simple memories: A starry sky. The sensations of a random moment long ago. The feel of our own bodies. The sight of someone beloved ("I look at her and I see the beauty / of the light of music").

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This song gives me cathartic comfort when the news seems too much to bear. It doesn't erase famine, wars, rumors of wars, a friend's bad pathology report, or my concern over the body politic. But my position shifts; I anchor myself to the beauty of creation, to the miracle of being an embodied soul, to the fragile graces of human relationship, and to the One who brought it all into being. Thin guy wires of memory and spirit steady me against sweeping currents of events, so that I can focus on them, yet not drown.

This tension, between the cares of the world and transcendence, for me typifies Advent. The scriptures recount woe and warnings of the end times. Can we not, in our time, relate to the words of Isaiah about his time, his people? "We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away" (Isaiah 64:6). Can we watch YouTube videos of tsunami surges and noncombatants in the crosshairs, crumpling as the bullets hit, and not be able to imagine, at least a little: "But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken" (Mark 13:24-25)? Maybe we relate to why so many generations of believers could long for this, the ultimate clean slate: "the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire" (2 Peter 3:12).

Michael Stipe sings, "I think about this world a lot and I cry / And I've seen the films and the eyes." The world is ending, every day, for many—fading into dark as life is starved out of them, blasted away by an IED or drone attack. One answer to the woe is to make it all go away. Stop the madness, permanently.

But Advent ultimately loops past the second coming to the first, in which we, very much stuck in the mud of existence, await the promised Lord. Only God doesn't come, as we might expect, to wipe away the muck of this world and lift us up in angelic robes to a cleaner, truer place. Rather, God comes down to us, down and dirty, into the fray, into the civil wars and demonstrations, the conspiracies and the petty fights, into a body, frail and intricately knit, just like mine or yours. Jesus will be a refugee, a working man; he will live under occupation (he might be occupying Wall Street). His feet will be dusty, and probably sometimes his breath will stink. Incarnation—whose ridiculous idea of a divine save is this?

God created the heavens and the earth and declared them good. After we made a mess of things, Jesus came down and is with us. Here. He's here, in the films and the videos, among the haunted eyes, looking at us, demanding that we not look away. And he's here, as a songwriter remembers an ordinary moment, in an ordinary kitchen, and observes, "Everything is beautiful."

I don't pretend to make sense of this scandal of incarnation. I only hope to testify to the One who came, and go where Jesus goes: everywhere, to the beauty, to the suffering.

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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