January 30, 2012 / Praxis
Flannery O’Connor insists that good fiction must be grounded in place; in this essay, Andrew W. E. Carlson discovers that the same can be said for church.
December 21, 2011
A couple months ago, I ran across an article in the Atlantic that I thought was a sure fake (Chelsea Fagan, October 18, 2011). I read it once in disbelief; I read it a second time and thought, I must have stumbled across something from the Onion. The story just seemed too outlandish.
It was an article on something called the “Paris Syndrome.” It explained that every year about twenty tourists in Paris are diagnosed with a physical illness that manifests itself in hallucinations, dizziness, anxiety, sweating, and a sense that passersby are looking at them exclusively, as though they’re a subject to be robbed, beaten, or worse.
What’s fascinating—and here’s what I thought was a joke—is that this isn’t the result of drinking too much good French wine or indulging in too many pastries. No, Paris Syndrome is triggered in tourists when what they imagine Paris to be collides with what they come to experience, when they’re hit with the cold reality that Paris isn’t the romantic city the postcards and movies tell us it is.
The article goes on to say that this syndrome largely affects Japanese tourists because the image of Paris in their culture is of a city populated with stick-thin models, all smartly dressed in the latest from Louis Vuitton. Apparently what the ads of Paris don’t tell them is that the Metro smells, pickpockets are everywhere, and not everyone looks like Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant.
What stood out to me the most, however, was the conclusion reached by a physician studying this phenomenon. He said that Paris Syndrome is “a manifestation of psychopathology related to the voyage, rather than a syndrome of the traveler.” In other words, the excitement of a visit to Paris makes the heart accelerate, which causes giddiness and shortness of breath and then results in hallucinations.
So if I understand this correctly, Paris Syndrome seems to be just a really bad hangover from getting too excited. The depth of anticipation these travelers feel—and the dramatic letdown they experience once they arrive in Paris—is enough to make them physically ill.
I can’t imagine what this must be like. I can’t imagine being told that I’m about to visit one of the most heavenly and perfect and idyllic cities on earth, and then receive a cold slap in the face upon arrival. I think I’d feel confused, betrayed, and like these travelers, probably a little dizzy, too. It can be tough to handle life when it doesn’t meet our expectations, or when our worlds feel like they’ve flipped upside down.
* * *
I thought about that story a lot this week because the texts we read during this third week in Advent offer echoes of a similar disorientation. Advent is upon us, which means we, as a church, are in a posture of waiting and anticipation. We’re prepping the nave and lighting candles and remembering the needy; and as families we’re shopping and preparing trees, cookies, gifts, and food. All of our rituals and preparation are geared toward remembering and celebrating that night when Christ was born, delivered into this world by a teenage mother amid straw and hay and barn animals. And thankfully, given all of the seasonal chaos of this month, our liturgy and Scripture are here to reorient us and remind us that this is a season of hopeful watching and hopeful waiting. But these texts are also something of a prophetic warning, a warning that what we’re waiting for is not what we think—Christ’s incarnation is not the gentle, quiet baby of our Christmas carols. Rather, Christ’s coming represents a violent and radical reshaping of the very world in which we live.
And the question is this: when we recognize this inversion, will we still want what we hope for? If these tourists knew that what awaited them in Paris wasn’t streets of romance bathed in soft movie lighting—that it was an old city with a bad sewer system, crime, racial rioting, and real, genuine people—would they still make the trip? Would they want to experience the beauty and the depravity of the city? In much the same way, these texts provoke us to ask whether we really understand what we’re waiting for and anticipating. Do we want what we’re waiting for?
* * *
Let’s start in Isaiah 61:1–3ff (NIV) where we read this:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
to bring good news to the poor
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim freedom for the captives
And release from darkness for the prisoners,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God,
To comfort all who mourn,
And provide for those who grieve in Zion
These are very strong words. What the author is saying here is this: there is someone coming who will bring good news to all those who suffer and are oppressed. Your day of liberation is coming; those who are captive will be free; those who are poor will be made wealthy. In short, all you know to be true about this world—its social, political, and economic order—all of that will be upended by the one who is coming. An innocent little infant, Jesus is not!
What’s more: embedded in this prophetic discourse is this curious little phrase: “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” which refers to the ancient practice of Jubilee. In ancient Israel God decrees a year of Jubilee every fifty years, and what follows is a complete reordering of property and wealth. All servants are set free and all the property that was purchased in the last fifty years is returned to the previous owner. Can you imagine what America would be like if God decreed this? If all property were reordered and redistributed? If everything you worked so hard to earn was suddenly stripped from you and given to someone else? If our migrant workers were immediately given an office job with benefits and a six-figure salary? It would throw our society into chaos.
But this kind of radical social and economic change offers only a hint of what is to come. Isaiah is saying that this birth of the Messiah will be something big, something enormous. Our world will not be the same; justice will be done and everyone will feel the effects.
Jesus’s own mother also chimes in. We have this beautiful song from Mary where she says,
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. . . .
He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel. (Luke 1:46-55)
We hear in Mary’s song phrases like “lifting up the lowly” and “the rich he has sent away empty.” We hear words of justice, strength, and love. These are the same themes we see in Isaiah and again in Psalm 126 and again from John the Baptist in John 1. These writers and prophets are trying to prepare us for what’s to come, to prepare us for the reality that the incarnation isn’t a casual, sweet little happening as so many of our songs and writings depict. When Christ comes it’s an extraordinary event, and everything in God’s purview—all of creation—will be shaken.
Indeed, the Advent texts remind us that in God’s economy the last are first, and the first are last. In God’s world, you must lose your life in order to gain it.
Do we want what we’re waiting for?
* * *
Call me crazy, but I enjoy heading to the mall on Black Friday. I usually don’t buy much, but there’s something about the energy and the excitement of those first days of the Christmas season that I like. This year, as I stood in line waiting to buy a couple things I didn’t need, I was struck by the fact that here I was, less than twelve hours removed from Thanksgiving—a day we set aside to be grateful for what we have—and I was already telling myself that I don’t have enough, that somehow my life would be just a little more complete if I had these two shirts. It was enough to make me think about turning around and walking out. But I didn’t. I wish I’d had, but I didn’t.
As I walked out of the mall, feeling guilty and indulgent for what I’d just bought, I became acutely aware of the narrative our stores try to sell us. They are superb at telling us that what we have isn’t enough; they are great at making us feel like we’re missing something. But they’re also selling an overall mood, an antidote to this feeling of not being enough. The message of the mall in December is that this is a season to dress warm, drink warm beverages by fireplaces, be surrounded by people we know and love, get great discounts on stuff that will be super fulfilling, and genuinely be of bright and good cheer. Oh, and this dream can be ours for the low price of $99.99.
I walk into the mall hopeful that, like our tourist friends, I’ll be ushered into a new and better life with new and better products. The mall produces ads for a way of life and a way of belief that, if I buy into them like those unfortunate tourists who buy into ads of Paris, will leave me bitterly disappointed. Isaiah, Mary, and John the Baptist remind us that despite these cozy and seductive images of the season, we live in a world rife with violence and injustice. And as we wait for the gift of Christ’s coming and return, we’re reminded he’ll also be bringing the gifts of goodness, justice, liberation, and salvation for all. These are not gifts that fit neatly under a tree or in a stocking; these are gifts of eschatological significance.
* * *
One of the things I enjoy about this season is reveling in the paradox that is God. That for all the dramatic language from our prophets—all the language of justice and peace—all of this begins with a baby being born in Bethlehem. There’s something rather unbelievable about the notion that God—a being whom we name as existing outside time and space, sort of hovering above it all—first takes on human form and enters into the dirty nitty-gritty of the earth. As Cornel West likes to say, Christ enters the “funk” of the world to be “God with us,” Emmanuel. And as a new father, and a stay-at-home dad at that, I know how inelegant and “funky” it is to be around a baby. The urine, the poop, the spit-up—I end each day smelling like a combination of diaper wipes and breast milk.
And yet this is our story, that Christ has come and will come to redeem the world through his dramatic incarnation, that God defies our expectations and rearranges our neatly ordered lives yet offers us peace and hope in spite of it all. And just as Christ enters the funk of our world, so he enters the chaos and disorder of our lives to bring us peace and hope. But this is not a cheap hope or a cheap peace; this is not hope gained easily at the mall, and it’s not peace that we can find by buying the right goods. No, Christ’s vision of hope and peace costs us with our lives. It humbles us. But the good news is that in the midst of it all, God is with us.
* * *
As I was writing this sermon yesterday, I learned that a friend’s brand-new baby passed away. It was unclear if he had passed away before birth or shortly after, but either way, it is an unspeakable tragedy. My heart hurts for my friend and his family. And yesterday evening, my wife learned that another friend’s one-and-a-half-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer. These are tragedies on a scale that don’t compute for me. As my wife said so elegantly last night, “Life just isn’t fair.”
And she’s right. Isaiah knows this. Mary knows this. And John the Baptist knows. Most importantly, God knows this. And thankfully, our prophets tell us that he has come to bind up the brokenhearted, to bring good news to the oppressed, and to comfort those who mourn.
I don’t know how to handle tragedy on this scale. I don’t know why things like this happen, and I don’t know how it fits into God’s plan, if there even is one. They are stories that make me scream because of their injustice and because, really, life isn’t fair. I feel the dizziness and the anxiety like our tourists in Paris, because really, this is not how life is supposed to go.
And it’s when I’m faced with these stories that all I can really say is truly, deeply, I don’t know what I hope for. I’m not fully sure I want what I’m waiting for. But please, come Jesus, come.
 The Examined Life, directed by Astra Taylor (Canada: Sphinx Productions, 2009), DVD.
Tom Ryan is a stay-at-home dad and an editor for The Other Journal.