In the penetential spirit of Advent, I offer this confession…
I am Seething Lump of Paradox
I have long been fixated on a particular paradox that in many ways defines me, and explains many of the things that I do. One way of articulating this paradox is to say that I am at once a hippie and an wanna-be aristocrat. That is to say that I am simultaneously driven by a desire to see social and economic justice done on earth, and by the lure of ivory towers, fine living, and of all the “gentlemanly” things one would expect a landed, well-bred, roman-nosed, trust-funded English baron might be interested in and driven by: wine, falconry (don’t laugh you bastards), heraldry, the “classics,” architecture, fox-hunting, mahogany furniture, etc., etc., etc.
One look inside my closet provides an example of the near schizophrenic behavior this paradox has pushed me to. Over the past 5 years my wardrobe buying patterns have oscillated between garb befitting an English country gentleman (replete with bow ties, hunting and smoking jackets [God forbid you wear your hunting jacket in the smoking parlor, or your smoking jacket whilst hunting harts in Her Majesties’ Forests]), and all fair-trade, eco-friendly, anti-sweatshop attire (No Sweat Shoes, shirts made of organic cotton by a women-run co-op in Nepal).
By confessing my confusion, I hope to put my turning to Anglicanism/Episcopalianism into perspective. In Anglicanism have found an entire Communion of Christians who are living the very same paradox that is me. Torn between justice and tradition; landed and monied, serving fair trade coffee and running day centers for the homeless; mixing gothic architecture with radical hospitality; this is what being Anglican is about. Two rows behind me at church, a retired international investment banker sits next to a homeless woman whose grocery cart full of tin cans is parked next to the big red doors which proclaim to the city “this is a sanctuary for all.” Anglicanism is a way for me to live in tension with myself and not be consumed by guilt on the one hand (that hand which is elegantly gloved in black calf-skin), or self-righteousness on the other (that hand which offers a warm meal to a stranger in the park).
Nostalgia and Advent
Nostalgia is the best word for what drives my wanna-be aristocratic side. And–since I grew up in a trailer park and have no land, nor title, nor bank accounts brimming with neither old or new money–it is really a nostalgic longing for a time and place that I have never experienced first hand. I am nostalgic for some idealized version Edwardian British Imperial domesticity that neither I nor my family had any part in whatsoever. Simultaneously, I am revolted by the oppression, and the economic, environmental, and cultural destruction that such imperialism has wreaked on our planet and on my fellow human beings in places like Africa and the Indian sub-continent. Interestingly, in this huge colonial morass I come again to Anglicanism, which was, at different points in history and sometimes simultaneously, an endorser, a restraint, and a healer of this imperial carnage.
Where does this nostalgia come from? Obviously, the answer is the books I’ve read, the TV shows and movies I’ve watched. As a boy, Tolkien and Lewis colonized my imagination (they might as well have raised a British flag over it), and turned me into an insufferable Anglophile.
Whereas my nostalgia (which extends far beyond my Anglophilism) can and does get me in trouble, it is also one of the reasons Advent is my favorite season of the Church calendar. Advent is about having a nostalgia for the Kingdom Reality that one has not yet fully experienced. It is an intense longing for a time and place both in the past and the future, which drives one to work for that Reality in the present.
A form of nostalgia is also at work in the active colonization of a sacred Christian feast by the demonic forces of materialism and consumption (and so my hippie side once again raises its dreadlocked head). A highly manipulated nostalgia for the idealized Platonic Form of Christmas Past is at the very heart of the advertising frenzy which causes shoppers to literally kill each other in the race to buy things that they have been convinced will allow them to relive those glory days of Christmases gone by: when everything was perfect, everyone was happy, and the big fuzzy horses trotted by pulling a sleigh down the gas-lamplit street as snow began to fall on the head of Tiny Tim as he uttered the immortal words, “Walt Disney bless us, bless us every one.”
I don’t know anyone who has ever lived this Hallmark Channel Christmas, and yet we are all willing to sell our souls to corporate America on the promise that if we just put up the decorations early enough, and open a few more credit cards this Christmas will be the Christmas. Nostalgia is a dangerous thing.
That is why Advent is so important to me. Through Advent Christ offers me the chance to have my nostalgic imagination colonized by the Kingdom of God, rather than by the Kingdom of the World. Advent is a tool to keep my out-of-control selfishness at bay and to paradoxically allow me to live in the moment that God has given me, while lifting my head in nostalgic anticipation for the Future that brings about our collective redemption.