Have you ever stopped to let yourself feel the weight of all that’s been lost?
At least for me, it’s terrifyingly easy. For example, just today I was listening to the Original Cast Recording of the recent Broadway adaptation of Anastasia (which I highly highly highly recommend, by the way), and what struck me most was the sense of something lost that the revised story and additional musical numbers highlighted. A lot of the more fanciful elements are gone, so it really hones in on the mournful, post-revolution ethos of Russia, looking back longingly at the time of royalty, nobility, high culture, beautiful music, a sense of pride and solidarity. Long story short, it’s heartbreaking. And it made me think of other ages, societies, cultures, ideas, and the like, that have been lost. It’s honestly kind of depressing once you start going. The ages when monarchs were recognized not as tyrants or holdovers from the past but a present and promising face of servant-leadership, the senses of words and ideas that held closer to the truth than current adaptations or even aberrations, the years when there was music created simply to be beautiful–not popular, or political, or agendized, just beautiful. I even got to thinking about losses in my own life, friends I’ve said goodbye to, childhood innocence, dreams and goals that turned sour.
And then, at work, I got a phone call from Janice.
I’ve never met this woman and I know next to nothing about her except that she’s somewhat elderly and lives somewhere mountainous in the middle of nowhere, “God’s country” in her own words. I’m in the middle of placing an order for her when she starts telling me her favorite jokes, and then telling me stories about what it’s like living where she does, about how she looks out from her back porch and only sees two rooftops, about all the elk she’s seen and the deer her family feeds. I swear, it was like being snapped awake, like being pulled out of the fog, and my day was suddenly turned from brooding and depressed to grounded and full of light.
It’s strange, but go with me on this: I think that’s the difference between a purely human perspective and a divine one. When we got locked into a human perspective, and what matters above all is humanity’s importance, then the loss of humanity’s golden ages is not just sad and tragic; it’s devastating and worthy of despair. It’s easy to look out at the world and see its brokenness, its seeming devolution into madness and lethargy and cacophony, especially in comparison with other ages of apparent glory (even taking into account their own flaws). But this wouldn’t be the first time the world has looked like this, and may not be the last; and the great difference between a perspective of hope and a perspective of despair is realizing it was never humanity’s job to aggrandize and glorify itself anyway. As good as humanity can do, we just can’t do it perfectly, or keep it perfectly together forever. And that’s actually for the best.
I think Chesterton puts it best in The Everlasting Man when he talks about Calvary:
All the great groups that stood about the Cross represent in one way or another the great historical truth of the time; that the world could not save itself. Man could do no more. Rome and Jerusalem and Athens and everything else were going down like a sea turned into a slow cataract. Externally indeed the ancient world was still at its strongest; it is always at that moment that the inmost weakness begins. But in order to understand that weakness we must repeat what has been said more than once; that it was not the weakness of a thing originally weak. It was emphatically the strength of the world that was turned to weakness and the wisdom of the world that was turned to folly.
The world is always entering, passing through, and leaving golden ages. The best the world has ever been only lasted for awhile. You can tell yourself the lies of progress all you want, that we’re constantly moving to bigger and better things, but this planet is only so big, and the human mind and heart is only capable of so much, and technology can only extend our reach so far. A day will come–maybe it’s almost here–when all those avenues will be searched out, emptied of their riches, dried up. If time doesn’t do it, nature or the pratfalls of fellow humans will stop them up.
But there is another perspective to take, one which sees humanity as a mind-boggling and beautiful paradox with a story that sends sabers of light to pierce through the darkness that hovers over a merely human life. It’s God’s own perspective, which sees and knows the humanity he has created for what it is: mere creatures made to be sons and daughters of God, mortals made to be immortal, natural beings made to be supernaturalized.
When Chesterton talks about the Incarnation, he pretty much blows my mind:
It is quite unlike anything else. It is a thing final like the trump of doom, though it is also a piece of good news; or news that seems too good to be true. It is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited his world in person. It declares that really and even recently, or right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into the world this original invisible being; about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths; the Man Who Made the World…I have not minimized the scale of the miracle, as some of our milder theologians think it wise to do. Rather have I deliberately dwelt on that incredible interruption, as a blow that broke the very backbone of history.
Man will always have periods of enormous light and periods of enormous darkness. Our history has truly glorious moments, but it’s easy to use those as stepping stones to our own aggrandizement, building a backbone to our self-made image to rise against even God, even as it collapses under its own weakness. When God became man, the backbone was snapped; the framework and foundation upon which the glory of humanity tried precariously to rise was broken. But with that collapse, the whole world was righted from its topsy-turveydom. Mankind was buying into the idea that life and history was a shroud of darkness with pinpricks of light. Christ Our Light came to show us that that darkness within time and space was surrounded by the pure light of eternity.
And that light continues to pervade the world. There have been times when that light pervaded culture, music, seemingly the very air of the world, and there have been times like our own when it’s all we can do to tear our eyes from the surrounding darkness. But the light lives. Christ continues to be present in every single tabernacle, punching through time and space and darkness just to continue to be with us and make the light ever-present. The Holy Spirit continues to breath life and hope into Christ’s very mystical body, the power of the Lord coursing through the veins of the warrior-queen that is our Mother Church, and the Blessed Mother and all the saints, citizens of the New Jerusalem, are continuing to call to us and pray for us, cheering and urging us forward like the moon and stars in the dead of night. Our God is a mighty warrior and the very source of light and life, and he heralds and ushers and carries us on to a life where all we’ll see is light.
And sometimes, all it takes to see that is for another human being to snap you out of your own reveries, handing you a ray of the light, reminding you of the One in Whom all that is lost will be found.
Ever have a craving for something without knowing what it is you were craving?
When Adam and Eve sinned, they lost the Garden of Eden. It was an earthly Paradise–no pain, no tears, no sadness at all. No, there was only happiness and an intense intimacy with the Lord. Yet they gave it up, trusting in lies that they might be more than what they were if only they would abandon their Creator. They even gave up the chance to live without the fear or even reality of death. They let sin warp their intellect and will, and pit their emotions against what they knew to be true and good.
And they passed it on to all of us.
We call it original sin, and it stains all our souls. It can be washed away by Baptism, so that we can be brought into God’s grace and have a chance at Heaven. But the effects never go away; we always have to grapple with them.
Even the craving.
Chesterton wrote that in just about every culture, there is a myth or legend of an ancient fall from grace that coincides at least partially with the truth held by Catholics regarding Adam and Eve’s Fall. They didn’t just pass on the sin and suffering. They passed on the remembrance.
We were not made for this world brethren, we were made for life with God, and we once had it. Yet now, here we are, and at our deepest, we know we don’t belong here. We crave Paradise. We all want something more than this world has to offer. We have a faint reminiscence of its music, we can almost taste the beauty, but then all is dark but for the saddest sight: God tearfully ushering broken man and woman from a place they can no longer call their home.
And the cry still echoes down the generations: “When, O God, when will we see your glory? When will we be done with this pilgrimage? When will we fly on wings of grace again?”
The glory of it is, God gives us an answer in Christmas.
When Christ came, God made man, He came to redeem us, to open the gates of Heaven again for us. Because God loves us; the very moment He sent our first parents from the garden, He was promising them salvation, a day when all mankind would have the chance once again at eternal happiness. Except this time, it would be even more splendid; we would literally be with Him, and by grace partake in His divine glory.
But first, the price for our transgressions had to be paid. The cost of the breaking of our covenant with God was death. As a priest once said in a homily, “By justice, we all deserved Hell. But Love couldn’t bear that.”
So Christ, truly God, came and took on our nature, truly man. And he came not as a mighty ruler, but as a tiny babe in a poor stable; He subjected Himself from the very beginning to our frailty, our suffering, our poverty. And so redeemed it.
Brethren, we are promised more than a Garden. We are promised Heaven, a Paradise beyond compare, beyond imagination, beyond comprehension; we are promised a home in the heart of Everlasting Love Himself.
Our crying does not go unheeded by the Lord. He has simply answered it in the most perfect and completely unexpected way.
He has answered our cry for Paradise with Christmas.
Rejoice, for He is with us, and has come to redeem us all!
Be yourself…it was so easy to do when you were younger, huh? Certainly, much of it had to do with the fact that you just didn’t care about what others thought of you. You were your own; the world was yours to discover. How you were perceived never came into your head; being yourself was as easy as breathing. Then suddenly you notice the way people look at you, and the startling thought enters your head: “Do they…not like me? Why? What am I doing wrong?”
Suddenly, ‘you’ is anathema. ‘You’ must be hidden away at all costs to ‘fit in’ or ‘be well-liked’. You begin to forget who the real ‘you’ is, and you try to balance the shadow of what’s left of ‘you’ with an acceptable image, blurring the lines until you can’t tell which is which.
Then, suddenly, from the radio, the television, every sign and street corner, that familiar cry rings out: “Be yourself!” “Stand out!” “Pay no heed to the opinions of the world!” FINALLY!!!! THEY UNDERSTAND!!!! You can be you! At long, long last, you can–
Wait…how can you be yourself if you don’t remember who you are?
Never fear! The world has the answer to that too! All you have to do is buy this clothing…listen to this music…say these things this way…and WHAM! You can be yourself again…just like everyone else…
Notice the discrepancy? ‘Be yourself’ has become another cliche, a new niche. It’s one more option to mask the true problem: you’ve forgotten who you are. Rebel, hipster, what have you–to stand out, you must fit in. And the more you try to fit in, the more you realize you never will.
Chesterton particularly liked to point out the beautiful paradoxes of life; it was one of the reasons he came to convert to Christianity and Catholicism. One of the paradoxes of life is that in order to fit in, you must stand out.
But allow me to clarify, for I mean something rather different than society by these terms. When I say fit in, I do not mean become part of the crowd; when we strive to join the collective, we’re searching for love. This is the deepest hunger of every person, the most basic and important desire. When I say ‘fit in’ in this context, I mean to find yourself comfortable in the world, unafraid of being judged, because you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are loved. (Sidebar: This is why I can’t understand the appeal of many Eastern philosophies; they declare the search for love futile and advocate instead the following of a lifestyle that will ultimately lead to to being joined eternally to an indistinguishable collective.)
And when I say stand out, I mean something other than what the world declares is within the realm of standing out. ‘Standing out’ must begin with discovering, or rather rediscovering, who you are. It is when we recognize who we are that we are able to recognize how very loved we are.
Why? Because we are children of God.
Take a second and let that fully sink in and blow your mind.
No seriously, just stop. Right now. And contemplate: WE CAN CALL GOD “OUR FATHER”.
Good. Now back to the paradox.
Who are you? At your core, you have the potential of being an adopted son or daughter of the One True God, and by baptism, that incredible gift, that indelible mark, is placed on our souls. All that we are ultimately stems from and leads to this: that we exist, each and every moment, solely because God continues to love us, and desires us to spend eternity with Him.
It’s commonly heard in my family that ‘everyone is weird in their own way’. Our quirks, our talents, our likes, our dislikes, even our crosses–they are given to us as gifts of love, such that we are completely unique.
When we can recognize our identity as beloved children of the Father, then and only then can we truly ‘be ourselves’, for then we can confidently go forth into the world, unashamed of who we are, because we are perfectly, wonderfully, unfathomably loved.
By standing out, we find ourselves fitting in.