My annual Advent tradition is to stand in a pew and choke back tears while trying to sing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. This year the location moved to the kitchen table, my trembling hand clutching my red coffee cup. The action remained the same. It is the beginning of the first season of the church year, singing yet again in the future tense: “Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” The promise persists. I keep believing, though it tarries.
Advent is a dance, moving wisp-like through the longest nights of the year until its fasting consummates with the partner it seeks, the feast of Christmas. A pas de deux is pointless without both dancers. However virtuosic, no solo can substitute for the well-matched duet. Without a feast, the fast is fruitless asceticism, self-denial without a point. Without a fast, the feast is decadence, hedonism, avaricious consumption to stave off a crisis of meaninglessness.
Yet the goal of so many institutions in these United States, where the emperor annually erects a Christmas tree and nominally observes the season, has been permanent feasting without fasting. A Pearl Harbor’s worth of bodies have piled up every single day this week from the raging COVID-19 pandemic, most of those deaths preventable by even partial functioning of governmental institutions.
Somehow, the most salient number in the discourse of the White House and the Congress is the Dow Jones Industrial Average, now soaring to a record high. The ruling class has found a way to turn death into money for the wealthier among us, and they intend to engorge themselves. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: Money without end. Amen.
Given the vicissitudes of the past year, one might look favorably upon an Advent season spent pursuing the material enrichment of those for whom the feast rarely comes, rather than the traditional penitential cloths and the quiet lighting of candles and singing in minor keys while enduring long nights. Even this idolatrous society understands that satisfying the appetites of the hungry is a part of the season, although we prefer it in a sentimental, Instagrammable way rather than a structural one.
“Acts of charity become part of the liturgy of conquest, an attempt at redeeming an insatiable lust for feasting without fasting.”
But in our feeble hands, acts of charity become part of the liturgy of conquest, an attempt at redeeming an insatiable lust for feasting without fasting. Folks have sponsored “angel trees” and given away Christmas turkeys for as long as anyone can remember; the poor are as numerous and as desperate as ever. We’re due for a different kind of hope.
It seems the inevitable consequences of a politics built on cruelty and the studious avoidance of facts may finally be settling upon us. Around the country, governors are instituting new restrictions on gatherings, even establishing curfews in places like North Carolina. Public health authorities are warning against holiday gatherings. Hospitals are full, with staff exhausted and the worst still to come.
“Joyful all ye nations rise,” we Christians will sing, “join the triumph of the skies.” But this year we will be fasting without feasting.
When families finally gather again, there will be hundreds of thousands of empty chairs. This long year will finally end, but the absences it leaves behind will continue to haunt celebrations for years to come.
The advent of the feast we cannot have coincides with the fall of Trump. There is nothing more fitting. His presence, our very own Herod, has been a proper representation of the American politics of annihilation. His temperamental violence has wreaked havoc across the land, destroying families and neighborhoods and landscapes. Now he leaves behind waves of preventable death, lives lost for his petulant greed.
“The consequences of a politics built on that kind of greed are staring us unavoidably in the face in the form of feasting denied.”
Finally, the consequences of a politics built on that kind of greed are staring us unavoidably in the face in the form of feasting denied. But even at this crucial moment, the effects are spread unevenly. Black communities in particular stand in great precarity this season, facing longstanding health disparities and economic inequities that have made them more susceptible to all of the worst effects of the pandemic.
It is to a world plagued by similar violence and greed that the Christ comes. The way before him is prepared by a song for such a moment, for the conditions of grief and exploitation and cruelty. His mother sang it, and surely he felt the reverberations as he, too, waited out a long night to be born into suffering.
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,” Mary sang. “He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” The stuff of revolution, of tyrants falling and the healing of the nations.
Given the peril and the hope of this night, I intend to join the happy chorus, although with voice somewhat subdued. Surrounded by the noise of strife, how can we keep from singing?
Greg Jarrell serves at QC Family Tree in Charlotte, N.C. His latest book is A Riff of Love: Notes on Community and Belonging.