Monday, December 21, 2020

Advent 2020: Blue Christmas

What has this to do with the approach of Christmas, with Advent?  Everything.  If only because December does not stop the world from its actions until January.  If only because life is always and ever-present, even in the midst of our revels, or the preparation for our revels.

Advent still preserved most of the characteristics of a penitential seasons which made it a kind of counterpart to Lent, the middle (or third) Sunday corresponding with Laetare or Mid-Lent Sunday. On it, as on Laetare Sunday, the organ and flowers, forbidden during the rest of the season, were, permitted to be used; rose-coloured vestments were allowed instead of purple (or black, as formerly).... Gaudete Sunday, therefore, makes a break...about midway through a season which is otherwise of a penitential character, and signifies the nearness of the Lord's coming.
Now Gaudete makes hardly a ripple in a season marked, secularly if not liturgically, by such a surfeit of rejoicing that a counterpart is sometimes required. The mystery of Advent, all but drowned in the anticipation of opening presents and having the "perfect Christmas," must be recovered somehow, and part of that recovery is in identifying that Christmas does not come to us out of time, but precisely in time. And time involves memory, and memory, especially as we get older, involves the awareness of loss. More and more the loss becomes as much a part of Christmas, personally, as joy is supposed to be what Christmas means, socially. 

I used to offer a "Blue Christmas" service in Advent.  In lieu of that, I offer the following, a sort-of seasonal meditation that runs counter to the world's idea of the season, but only because the world's idea is narrow, and human experience is vast, it contains multitudes.

When someone dies, where do they go?

Somewhere?  Nowhere?  Anywhere?

It's the easiest thing in the world to insist the dead are merely and solemnly dead.  But it doesn't really say anything to say it.  My mother died in December a year ago. In the year sense, 300,000 have died of covid alone.  Christmas is not the time for burials, but one of the first I conducted was in the snows of December, in bitter cold.  And withint two weeks of that funeral, I conducted my first Christmas services as a pastor.

I buried my mother a week after her unexpected death. The day before that I saw her corpse at the funeral home.  Even our language betrays us, though:  "her corpse."  In what sense was it her possession?  Was it in any sense her?  If not, who was she?  If so, why is she "gone"?  Where did she "go"?  What does "dead" mean, anyway?

"Dead" basically means "inanimate."  As I tell my students, the difference between a sleeping person and a corpse is that we expect one of them to get up again.  "From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be," John Donne says, addressing death as if it were a person.  "Death's second self, which seals up all in rest," Shakespeare says of sleep.  The comparison is an old and apt one, but we know the difference, except when we don't.  Poe's stories of premature burials reflect an age when the concept of "coma" hadn't reached medical practitioners, much less the laity, yet people who seemed dead sometimes proved to be alive, and horror stories abounded of coffins (who disinterred them to check?) ripped by fingernails of corpses-who-weren't awaking underground and trying to get out.  Elaborate systems for opening crypts from the inside were sold, and burial above ground, for those who could afford it, became a growth industry.  Poe, as ever, knew his market.

But when we speak of the dead, we mean those for whom life has truly ceased.  But what does that mean, except the obvious?  Where does life "go"?  Why does it cease?  It does because that is the mortal experience, that's why.  Death results when the body is no longer able to sustain life functions. But what does that mean?  And why are life functions impaired to that degree?  My mother had severe diabetes, stage four kidney failure, cardiopathy, and toward the end contracted pneumonia, but was treated successfully for it.  Why was none of that, together or singly, enough to make her body "no longer able to sustain life functions?"  Because it wasn't, primarily.  But when it wasn't, why did the life stop?

All of our answers are circular.  And if the animating force can be passed from individuals to new individuals (babies), why can't it be restored?  What is it, that can be passed so particularly, but leave so easily?  Or with so much difficulty?  And who are "we"?  Our bodies?  Or are these bodies possessions we shuffle off like so many clothes?  If we are our bodies, did I bury my mother?  Or did I bury her body?  It was her; but it wasn't her.  My mother spoke to me, knew me, remembered me.  The corpse did none of that.  It didn't ask me for anything, offer me anything, demand or request anything.

It just lay there, like someone asleep.  But not asleep.  So, so clearly not asleep.

We are trapped in our dualism, whether we like it or not.  "Her corpse/body," we say.  Or we just say "her."  But it isn't her, anymore than her twin sister was her.  My brother found a picture of my parents on their wedding day, and joked that our Dad had married the wrong sister by mistake.  By the time we knew her our mother wore glasses; it was how we told her apart from our aunt.  My mother wore no glasses for her wedding pictures.  But our aunt was not our mother; we always knew that.  How did we know, because by sight they were the same?  By sight, it was my mother in that coffin.  But it wasn't; but it was.

Where did she go?  Nowhere?  Maybe, but what answer is that?  It is no better than death is a cessation of life functions.  Neither is an answer; both are just a dodge.  The truth is, we don't know.  All these years, centuries, millennia, and we still don't know.  We are still confronted, on a daily basis, by the mystery.  And our response is, still, dualism:  that is her.  Or, that is just her body.  Whose body?  Hers.  The person who is gone.  So a corpse is a rental, something still yours as if you were on vacation?  People used to stay with the corpse because it was unkind to leave the loved one alone at such a time.  They would stay up in shifts, for hours, around the clock, until the burial.  I understood that, in the funeral home.  My mother had been removed from the health care facility she was in before I could get there.  She was 250 miles away before I could travel to see her again, for the last time.  I sat in a room in the funeral home just to be with her again, to not leave her alone after so many days when she was only in the company of strangers.

Nowadays we want the dead removed as quickly as possible, and maybe even covered up, never to be seen again.  The health care center wanted no time lost removing my mother.  Death upsets us all; we don't want to be reminded of its reality.  I am impressed with the mortician's arts, the ability to make the dead look life-like, to preserve the flesh so it doesn't begin to decay until long after the crypt is sealed, the ground placed over it all.  But I know people who think an open coffin barbaric and morbid.  My brother didn't want to see his mother in the funeral home; the coffin was delivered closed and ready for the grave to the cemetery, where we said prayers for her, and for ourselves.  Who else are the prayers for, especially at such a time?  I spent time with her, the day before, in a room of the funeral home.  I was happy to; but I pondered whether it was my mother I was spending time with, or a corpse that looked the way she used to.  Or is that the way she will look forever?  Was the corpse her?  Or was she a ghost in the machine?  Whatever answer you think you have for that, it will still come back to dualism.  That my mother was simply a sum of "life functions" is a reductio ad absurdum none of us really apply to ourselves.  Do not be so glib or brave about death until you can answer the question:  "My death; it is possible?"  Because if you take that question seriously, it is not.  You cannot imagine your own self-extinguishment.  You may plan beyond your death; you can do nothing beyond your death.  You will imagine you can; but that's because you can't imagine a world truly without you, one in which you truly are not an observer, a note-taker, a respondent.  Consider any story where the dying are granted a vision of death, or a world where they no longer are.  Dickens got it right:  Scrooge was expunged from human compassion and consideration, reduced only to what he had owned, and a name on a piece of stone.  That vision chilled Ebenezer more than any other.  Your death; is it possible?  Ask the dead.  They have the answer.

But where are they, the dead?

Constantly, and without always being fully aware of it, we come across something that happens to us without recurring or belonging to us.  For instance, it could be the thing, not as something present-at-hand or subsistent, identical with its persistence (vorhanden), but handled straightaway as something that we have to-hand, without having it before our eyes (zuhanden), according to Heidegger's distinction.  It could be the difference between the object synthesized by apperception according to the a prior conditions of experience (and thus of its objects), on the one hand, and, on the other, the irreducible in-itself of the thing that is free not to appear according to our finite criteria, as distinguished by Kant.  Or, finally, it could be the gap between the thing understood and the infinite, the incomprehensibility of which is implied by formal reason, according to Descarte's distinction.  In each case, we undergo on a daily basis unavailability of that which is an exception to objectification, not as a distant domain, reserved for strange experiences, but in the daily and banal proximity of what happens to us without identifiable cause, without foreseeable reason, in a virginal contingency, banal and familiar.  In each event, we undergo this mode of happening, which requires nothing of anyone and above all no authorization from a transcendental I.  And this is especially so in the event that admits no precondition--neither the principal of contradiction, nor the principal of sufficient reason:  the gift.  We cannot deny this banal proximity, particularly as it puts into operation phenomena as close to us--closer to us than ourselves--as our birth and the paternity that engenders it.  This inevitable phenomenon is always already there.  A mode of knowledge--that of the object--that cannot do justice to it retains its legitimacy, but thus reveals its limit.  But it also loses all legitimacy if it does not recognize this limit--an epistemological limit, which attest more essentially to ontic finitude.  The object has value only as finite and in finitude, which, moreover, it presupposes without being able to conceive of it.  To conceive of our finitude thus demands that we no longer claim to know only objects, and that we allow for a knowledge without an object.

Jean-Luc Marion, Negative Certainties, tr. Stephen E. Lewis, The University of Chicago Press, 2015, p. 3

I cannot read that passage without thinking of death, and of the gift of death.  Or those last two lines, without thinking of the question:  "My death; is it possible?"  That is knowledge without an object, because how can we know the reality of our own death, without allowing for the reality we will not longer be an object?  Is that corpse ours?  In what possible sense?  But if it is not, are we merely ghosts in a machine?  Is that the "gap between the thing understood and the infinite...according to Descartes' distinction"?  And truly, what is more banal and in daily proximity to us than death?  "Memento mori."  "In the midst of life, we are in death."  My father's death was a surprise, but not quite as surprising as my mother's.  He was in some decline, but not from his heart (he was a surgical patient twice for his heart, and had a history of heart problems), and when his death was foretold, the prediction became reality within two weeks.  Looking back from that day, the day of death, the end became apparent, almost inevitable.  But until it happened, it seemed as distant and unknowable as a star.  My mother's death came in her sleep.  She was getting health care, but she was improving.  And then she passed (we could say "died."  One term is as meaningful and as meaningless as the other.)  Again, looking back, it is clear death was proximate for days; months; even years.  It was also as banal as a phone call early in the morning, when you know no good news comes, and how much of a cliche is that observation?  What could be more banal?  I am using Marion's language for my own purposes, but I'm not so sure I'm so far from what Marion meant.

"A mode of knowledge--that of the object--that cannot do justice to it retains its legitimacy, but reveals its limit."  Who did I know as my mother?  That body in the coffin?  That cold and now embalmed clay?  Was that her?  Was that not her?    What line do I draw, and where, and how?  She was not an object, but now the body is:  the body that I called my mother, even as I stood over the coffin to see that much of her that I could ever see, for the last time:  "The object has value only as finitude and in finitude...."  This is death as we literally see it.  "This inevitable phenomenon is always already there."  Memento mori.

"Life," the sage told the king, is a mystery. It is like a bird that flies into your hall out of the storm, and flies across the room, through the noise and the lights and the gaiety and above the crowd, and then flies out again, through the opposite window, back into the storm. And where it came from, and where it went, we do not know.

Christmas is coming. This is the time when we celebrate that very mystery, the mystery of life that inevitably leads to death, even for the one Christians call God Incarnate.  What marvel is this?  What miracle, that the Creator of the Universe knows our life so intimately, from birth to death, and everything in between?  What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul?  What light is this in the darkness?

May it be unto you according to your faith.


  1. Very resonant with today's O Oriens antiphon. I was listening to settings of it and it reminded me of the Easter proclamation, near the end where it calls Jesus the one morning star

    May this flame be found still burning
    by the Morning Star:
    the one Morning Star who never sets,
    Christ your Son,
    who, coming back from death's domain,
    has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
    and lives and reigns for ever and ever.

  2. That’s lovely. Thanks.

  3. I arrived back home from the funeral of my best friend's father. My friend wasn't there because he is in hospice. In a matter of weeks I expect to be attending his funeral service. It's easy to think one is acceptable because it came at the end of a life well lived, and the other a loss because it will come too early, but I find all death tragic. Death is tragic because of those who mourn the dead and how the deceased are now missing from their lives. If there is no one to mourn, then that is tragic too because we are social creatures and our connections are the real value in our lives. (I do think the life cut short has a deeper sadness and sense of loss)

    I returned and read this post. It was very helpful in thinking about the day and what is to come. I have come to reject the duality of mind and body, and even soul and body. Who we are seems so enmeshed with our physical being as to be inseparable. My chemistry, electrical impulses and physicality are as fundamental to my being as my mind. Hunger, satiation, tiredness, restedness, joy, sorrow, elation, fear, love, and infinitely more are part of my being, mood and sense of self. Taste, smell, touch and hearing endlessly move my mood. Something as simple as how I hear makes a part of my being. The concert conductor that finds birds annoying because they sing out of tune, different from birder that can pick out the subtle differences of song to identify species, the sounds have different effect. To be colorblind is to literally see the world differently and have a difference interaction with the world. There is such a fallacy of the tech gurus who think we can be loaded into machines to live indefinitely. It would be like looking at the entire electromagnetic spectrum and thinking that capturing one tiny narrow wavelength would represent everything.

    I find myself less and less interested in all these definitions. Where is the line from where we are alive to dead, where is the soul, is it the ghost in the machine or something else. I get the same feeling that I have when I hear atheists attacking religion. I think that are asking all the wrong questions and looking at all the wrong places. When my friend dies, is it the 10 year old I met 45 years ago? The goofy teenager with whom I drank beer and drove old cars in the forest? My best man at my wedding? The dad that took turns pushing the tire swing with all our kids? The dying man in the bed on my video call tonight? Maybe its all of them or some composite of them, or maybe it just doesn't matter. What I know is that I will grieve the loss of all of them. I will grieve for his children that lost their father and his wife that lost her husband. I will grieve for our other friends that will miss him as much as I do. I will carry his coffin, I will watch it enter the earth. I will pray, for what I don't know, but I will pray anyway with a sense of meaning. And I will know too that my turn will come, even as I agree that I can't imagine my own extinguishment from this earth and I those I love.

    Thank you for this. I can't say how much it has meant.

    1. Thank you for your comment. It means a great deal to me.