There is an abiding idea and assumption that plagues us humans. It has come up at various times in various worldviews with various names. It’s found in the implications of what Zoroastrians called the conflict between “Asha” and “Druj”, what Plato called “Dualism”, Diogenes called “Cynicism”, first-century heretics called “Gnosticism”, Descartes: “Rationalism”, Kant: “Idealism”, Bacon: “Empiricism”, French Enlightenment-ers: “Materialism”, Modernists: “Realism”, Postmodernists: “Pragmatism” and “Constructivism”, so on and so forth through the ages.
The thing all of these ideas have in common is a separation between the material and the immaterial; the abstract and the physical; the temporal and eternal; the objective and subjective; the spiritual and the human. Further, they tend to elevate one over the other.
We can’t really escape this (I’ve written about this before).
One of the basic obvious tenets of finitude is that we can’t be in two places at once, neither physically nor intellectually. To perfectly hold the delicate balance between these poles of the seen and unseen is difficult, if not impossible.
But Advent can help us.
The Advent was not simply some sort of “Plan B” to the history of the world. It was not a case of God looking at what he created and saying to himself “crap, now how can I use what’s here to fix this?” No; it was the goal and intention of all of history. It was the song of redemption sung by the heavens from eternity past. It was woven into the fabric and rhythm of the cosmos.
And if this is the case, then that means that humanity was not incidentally able, but rather intentionally purposed, to contain and be inhabited by the Divine.
The Advent and Incarnation are the least “dualistic” things ever to break into our reality. In this event, we have the absolute union and marriage of the physical and spiritual, temporal and eternal, and human and divine; and they exist with no separation, no elevation, and no preference. As the church has affirmed through the ages, Jesus was 100% man and 100% God.
Does that make sense intellectually (or mathematically)? Hell, no. Like I said before, our minds cannot hold these truths at the same time, but I do think we can accept the reality of their tension and live within it (thank God post-modernism has given us the philosophical ability to hold seemingly-contradictory truths at the same time and it be okay!).
And God has given us a gracious gift to help us live in this tension. The real Beauty of all this I want to talk about is not even what happened all those centuries ago, but rather what happens week by week in gatherings all around the world of the People of God. Christ Advents to his people all the time, even today.
How? In the sacraments, but most clearly in Communion (or “the Eucharist”).
Too much of the Church has suffered under the weight of the aforementioned dualism, whereby the sacraments have been turned into mere “symbols” that are only useful in as much as they help us “remember” and “bring to mind” other things (P.S., that was also the express purpose of icons throughout the centuries that Protestants also seem to dislike, yet they import this purpose into the sacraments). But the good news of Communion is that, just like Jesus’ birth, death, and rising, they are not merely symbols pointing to other things, but they are the physical means by which very real, spiritual things are being communicated and accomplished.
The Advent shows us that the material world is able and was meant to contain the divine. One day, God will make his home on this earth. This nature and creation are able to hold God within it. And he gives us a taste of this each week at The Table. We are tasting the heavenly bread of our wedding feast. We are feasting with the saints of old in Egypt who gathered in huddles around dimly-lit tables stained with lamb’s blood which still dripped from the doorpost outside. We eat with tired, confused, and weary disciples who can’t seem to make sense of Jesus’ cryptic words around a table with bread and wine. (Here’s an amazing lecture about this by N.T. Wright)
In both the Advent and in Communion, time and space collapse into each other, and the substance of the elements (either the human body or the bread and wine) are utterly changed into and inhabited by Eternal Divinity, while their form remain the same. And so, bread and flesh become one with the Son of God and become no less bread or flesh.
And so, as this Advent season draws to a close, rejoice in the fact that–week by week–the Communion Table has been granted to be a manger where once again our Christ is born, and our mouths are crosses where his body is broken and blood spilt, and where our salvation is tasted and consumed once more.
For those with theological questions surrounding this, I have a smaller post I’ve written up.