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Open Bible with Christmas story and Christmas decorations / Photo by MKucova

Advent Is One of Many Religious Paradoxes

Advent Is One of Many Religious Paradoxes

Column by Walter Hesford

On Dec. 4, the second Sunday of Advent, the pastor of my congregation reminded us that this season is traditionally considered “a little Lent,” a time for penitence and lamentation. It is also a time of joyous expectation, as we look ahead to the birth of Jesus.

This is certainly a paradox. We are asked to be simultaneously sorrowful and happy.

We are also told during this season to be prepared not only for Jesus’ birthday, but for his coming into our lives and at the end of times. In one of the Scripture readings for the first Sunday in Advent, Paul writes to his Roman congregation (and to us) “… you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. … [T]he night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:11-14 NRSV).

How likely is this to happen during our Advent? Do we really want to wake up, to deny ourselves our worldly wants? Aren’t we really Romans under a Christian façade, delighting in Saturnalian revelries at this dark time of the year?

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Do we really want to wake up, to deny ourselves our worldly wants?x

The dominant culture now calls us to buy more and more to gratify our and our loved ones’ desire for more and more. One hears of Advent calendars with windows that open up not to promote devotion, but to promote increased consumption of luxuries.

Thus a religious Advent is counter-cultural as well as paradoxical.

The same can be said of many religious teachings. Consider, for example, the first of Jesus’ beatitudes “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20 NRSV). How can those who possess nothing possess a whole kingdom?

This paradox is not unique to Christian tradition. There’s a wonderful joke about a dilemma faced by a Taoist monk who wants to give a fellow monk something for his birthday. He wonders, “How do you give someone something who already has nothing?”

From East to West, old time religions suggest that one must have nothing to be open to everything, be empty to be full. You must be last to be first. You must lose yourself to find yourself.

– Walter Hesford

From East to West, old time religions suggest that one must have nothing to be open to everything, be empty to be full. You must be last to be first. You must lose yourself to find yourself.

‘What nonsense,’ says our dominant consumer culture. The way to be first, to find yourself, is to find ways to get more of what you want.

Perhaps religion is by definition rooted in a counter-cultural paradox. It calls for us to be bound (“legion”) back (“re-)—back to ancient traditions and teachings, which are likely to be out-of-sync with contemporary secular culture, as is the whole idea of being bound to something other than ourselves. Religious teachings in-sync are likely to be false. The “prosperity gospel” is not a paradox, but an oxymoron.

Secular culture, enlightenment thought and science do not delight in paradox. They want a clear and direct path to understanding and the good life.

Yes, science explores mysteries, but in order to solve them. Religion dwells in mystery.

Many religions past and present have made the mistake of trying to join with or become the dominant culture. History shows that, if they succeed, they are co-opted by those in power. Religions then become corrupt, oppressive and imperialistic.

To succeed in remaining real religions and a force for compassion and truth, for equity and justice, religions must fail in the quest for domination.

How paradoxical.

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