Advent, Thor’s Hammer, and Cosmic Mystery

So instead of walking into our church to participate in Advent Lessons and Carols this past Sunday, I found myself standing at that very time in a Scandinavian gift shop buying the Hammer of Thor. All right, not an actual hammer, but a necklace and earrings shaped like the Hammer of Thor. Thor is the pre-Christian Norse storm god, the blow from whose mighty hammer was said to create thunder. Thor was also respected for his strength and for his ability to endure pain without complaint. I purchased the representations of Thor’s Hammer primarily because of my interest in ancient religions, and particularly ones that involve such fantastic mythology. But I also gravitate toward a broad personal theology that I indulge from time to time, although I identify as Christian.

We didn’t skip Lessons and Carols on purpose; it was just one of those things that sneak up on you. But the incongruity of the situation — getting waylaid on one’s way to Advent service by a Scandinavian shop selling the Hammer of Thor — prompted me to think, as I often do, about the confluence of certain religious tenets and how my own “personal theology” fits into both Christianity and the broader world of spirituality. I’m not the sort who will say that all religions are essentially the same — because, really, they are not. It is not even the case that all religions believe in a Creator (Buddhism, for example, does not, but instead holds that the universe has been eternally existing). Different religions emphasize different things, and they cannot be easily mashed together without overlooking and even disrespecting these things. However, it does seem clear that each religion is pointing toward something “else,” something more, something greater than what we can see with our immediate eyes in our immediate physical surroundings. It is for that reason that I tend to augment my Christian practice with contributions from other philosophies, which often are not contradictory in any case.

Each Advent, I am compelled to think about the mystery, and the apparent lunacy, of the idea that the Creator God decided at some point in history to enter human flesh and become one of us, in a profound and world-altering act to demonstrate God’s love for his creation and his identification with us. It must be a ridiculous idea that a being whose breadth and depth are so far beyond our own that we are hopeless ever to comprehend it decided to become one of us for a time. It must be ludicrous that in that “becoming,” this cosmic being intended to free his creatures from the shackles of their ongoing misdeeds, to offer redemption from those misdeeds, and in so doing to effect a cosmic demonstration both of love and the inherent sanctity of our created bodies. Inherently sanctified because, so Christians believe, God saw fit to “become” into one of those bodies, and our flesh can receive no higher recognition, no higher gift.

All these things sound preposterous. But they also possess (to borrow the now famous phrase) the “audacity of hope.” The truly bold, outrageous, no-holds-barred kind of hope that might just have a chance at success, by sheer virtue of its audacity. Such is the mystery that Christianity proclaims, and to which it joyously holds on with both hands. This, despite the fact that the biggest mistake Christian churches often make is to forget that what lies at their heart is not a carefully sorted-out array of systematic rules and provisions, but is essentially cosmic mystery.

One can believe in the truth of Christianity as itself; but of course, that is necessarily different from the system that developed around it, since finite humans need finite and inadequate ways to assimilate the infinite divine. Thus, “Christianity” as it is practiced, systematized, and understood by finite creatures is necessarily different from the cosmic truth upon which Christians believe their religion is based, and which it tries to express, and which only God can fully understand.

So that brings me back to Thor’s Hammer. I wear it as a symbol of strength, confidence, and endurance, which are traits that I value and try to emulate (not always successfully, but that is the nature of our imperfect being). Mystery is that wearing it can help me foster those traits within myself and express them outside myself. Mystery is that, according to our best astrophysicists, our entire universe — all the energy and matter that it now contains — existed as a superdense spot much smaller than an ordinary pearl about 14 billion years ago, and in response to some action that we do not understand, instantaneously exploded in an event we call the Big Bang, and has been expanding ever since. Mystery is that all the elements on the Periodic Table are, without exception, forged within stars like our Sun, and that our bodies are therefore quite literally made from stars. Mystery is that for its first billion years, Earth was a nightmarish, volatile place, home only to constantly erupting volcanoes, lava oceans, a constant barrage of meteors, and an atmosphere toxic to life as we know it. Mystery is that, by means we still do not understand, the amino acids and proteins of life found their quickening, and a bunch of cyanobacteria over millions of years became responsible for an atmospheric oxygen content that would allow larger life forms to come to exist. Mystery is that we know of over 100 billion galaxies, and each galaxy has about 100 billion stars.

Mystery is that we as a species feel an ongoing pull toward and connection with some greater world not entirely visible to our physical eyes, but known so ineffably to our hearts. Mystery is that we could be loved by a cosmic being who could have set all of the above into motion; that we can love other people as wholly, as beautifully, and as inexplicably as we often do; and even that we have come to know what love is.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

Easter

From the moment we arrived in church this Easter, I was reminded that there is something about an Easter service which never fails to lift one’s spirit and fill one’s heart with joy. It is such an unabashedly positive conclusion to such a sober three days (for a few more thoughts on those three days, see my first post, The Triduum). I believe this is due to a combination of the message of Easter and the explosion of flowers that always adorns the altar. And, let’s be honest, it never hurts when Easter falls in bright, warm April as it did this year. Somehow those bracing March Easters don’t quite rise to the occasion, when the myriad altar flowers couldn’t be more incongruous against that stiff wind numbing your face.

But perhaps most of all, I think there is something that appeals to us on a bedrock level about that unabashedly positive — indeed ecstatic — ending. That ending to those three days of hushed gloom, in which we are meant to remember what is wrong in life and mostly in ourselves. What appeals to us on a bedrock level is not just the joyful, celebratory nature of Easter itself. It is the fact that that joyful celebration arrives not just any time, but after what are symbolically, representatively, the darkest days of the world.

It need not even matter whether one is Christian and therefore believes in a larger significance to what happened on those particular days in history. What matters is what those days are meant to represent. They represent the darkest hour, for an individual human being or for humanity on a broad scale. It cannot be incidental that the celebration of bursting light comes immediately after the days when things could not be darker, could not be worse. This speaks profoundly to us as humans. We want, and in many cases ultimately believe, that such will be true for our own lives and our own obstacles. Surely the progression from darkest to brightest that is the message of Easter resonates with us on this one of many levels.

While I love the exuberant, kinetic character of Easter, it is Christmas that holds for me a kind of joyfulness of spirit that is surpassed by no other time on the calendar. The joy of Christmas is in some ways a sweeter, more innocent-feeling, less wild kind of joy — but in no way lesser in impact. It is the charming, encumbered-by-nothing kind of joy that has to do with a little child bringing a message that at its basic level is just love and happiness, pure and simple. No strings, no ifs and maybes. Just love and happiness.

Yet even here, if we are reading Luke’s Gospel, we can detect a similarity to the post-Triduum arrival of Easter in that Joseph and Mary are in peril. They are away from home in a stable, with no human assistance, for a potentially life-threatening event. Luke would have had his own reasons for portraying those details in that particular way, as would have Matthew when he recorded a different peril in the threat of Herod to the child. But the charm, sweetness, and laughing joy of the Christmas event (and everything it can signify) will not be denied. There is nothing that exactly matches what I feel at the Christmas Eve service. The greens, the countless sparkling lights, the leaping candles, the red bows, the winter’s cold, the sense of a whole community in joyous anticipation. All of them together encapsulate for me that boundless and unrestricted Sublime. And that delight at a splendidly felicitous event, even in the awareness that peril exists in the world, is what Christmas shares with Easter.

But this was Easter. The flowers and the colors and the cathartic exuberance of the impossible fulfilled. Shine I knew it would, and shine it surely did.

© Elizabeth L. Keck 2010