I’m not really thinking about Christmas much right now. There are too many pieces of life still unresolved this December. I can’t see very far ahead–this is driving in fog with my low beams on, not knowing when I’ll arrive where I’m going. But I’m still walking forward, or trying to.
This past weekend I spent most of my free time revisiting my undergrad thesis on Derrida and T.S. Eliot, immersing myself in that headspace after years of absence. I’d forgotten about pieces of it, absorbed them so thoroughly into my thinking that the origin of the parts had become obscured. One of these pieces that became so much a part of me is Derrida’s concept of à venir.
I spent last year’s Advent season meditating on the idea of it being a penitential season. It was for me, a time of preparing the self, stripping the distractions, waiting for the arrival of the Christ child. It was a time of soul-stripping, and I had no idea how few things I’d be holding in my hands by the time it was over. The year before was much the same — feeling pressed in, pressed down, holding my breath as I let things go and slapping God’s name on it to make sense of it all.
There is so much brokenness. My brain is on overdrive, filled with stories. The pain of the people dear to me is a loud white noise in my head, keeping me awake at night. The idea of Advent being a time for introspection and penitence is still true, but it doesn’t fit this year. This year I can’t “God’s sovereignty!” myself out of the questions I carry, all balled up in my pocket.
Revisiting that thesis for my applications made me laugh. I’d tied up the loose ends in pretty bows at the end — I had succumbed to the internal pressure of working with Derrida at a Presbyterian college, leaned a little too hard on the Christianity-fixes-this-tension conclusion. Derrida didn’t go for answers, for tidy bows. That’s the whole point — he saw how uncontainable language and ideas and belief were, and talked about it. And the moderns couldn’t cope with the tension he embraced.
So now to explain: à venir. It’s Derrida’s term used to describe the space of tension between the idea of a thing and it’s actualization. It’s that time when you’ve had an idea for a recipe, pulled together your ingredients, and you’re waiting for the timer to take it out of the oven and see if it turned out how you hoped. It’s the moment between when you, a poet, have an idea for a poem and sit down to write, and when you give it to someone to read for the first time, and wait breathlessly to see their face and know whether or not you succeeded at yanking them into that first moment when inspiration struck.
À venir means “to come” or “forthcoming.” It’s the same root from which we name this time of year Advent. And Advent is about this, the tension of anticipation. That which is to come — we have no idea what it will turn out to be like, but we know it’s coming, and we wait, fully present.
I chuckle, because it seems that I’m not alone in feeling the anticipatory discomfort this year. Cara blogged yesterday, saying
I’m sitting here, in the present tense, realizing that I’m breathing somewhere between has come and will come, between Advent and Adventure.
Sarah wrote on it, too.
Now that I have wept, now that I have grieved, now that I have lost, now that I have learned to hold space with and for the ones who are hurting, now I have a place for Advent. Now that I have fallen in step with the man from Nazareth, I want to walk where he walked into the brokenness of this life, and see the Kingdom of God at hand. Now that I have learned how much I need him, I have learned to watch for him.
Advent is perhaps for the ones who know longing.
Two parts of the same à venir tension: adventure and longing; hope and grief. Advent, the penitential season. Advent, the season of tidings of great joy. Advent, the birth of the one who is to die. Advent, the birth of the King who will reign forever.
Advent, the messy season of the soul at its most human and most holy — when we don’t know what’s coming, we don’t know what we need, and we’re waiting and getting so antsy for something to change that we half don’t care what it is.
Maybe that’s why all my favorite Advent hymns are in minor keys? It’s a season of being unresolved. We may have a great hope, a great faith, a Messiah we watch for, but the beauty of à venir is in the surprise.
I like to hope I’m a lot more open to the surprises that may come this season, after a year full of them. But I know I’m not, not really. I love creature comforts, tidy endings, white hat/black hat thinking. Yet, that’s just not real. Real is nuance. Real is discomfort AND extravagant beauty mashed together in the same day. Real is unresolved melodies that are left unfinished.
And real is our very human, very beautiful innate ability to hope in the midst of crap. Even if it’s just the anticipation of sleep at the end of the day, or a warm cup of coffee in the morning, or a hot shower when it’s all over. We hope. That’s what we do. We look forward to things. And that’s the heart of being human, the heart of à venir. It’s the unquenchable spirit of Advent, and ideally of Christianity. Hope without ceasing, right? A God who cares, intimately. A God who took on flesh, who took on our tension and our humanity, our existence of nobility of soul and thought plus farting and tears.
Some days I don’t know if I believe, or if I do, what I know. But it’s human to hope, and it’s Christian to hope, and the messianic impulse of expectancy is strong. Things can get better. Things should get better. Love is real, and it is healing. The Incarnation is mystifying and surprising and good and I expect no less of final redemption. I don’t want a bow. I want a minor chord, I want the slice of surprise of the unresolved, the unknown. It’s more true.
À venir. God is with us. And it’s uncomfortable and surprising.