November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
December 21, 2014
In the face of death we cannot simply speak in some fatalistic way, “God wills it”; but we must juxtapose it with the other reality, “God does not will it.” Death reveals that the world is not as it should be but that it stands in need of redemption. Christ alone is the conquering of death.
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Circular Letter to the Confessing Churches,” 1941
They say we all lose twenty-one grams at the exact moment of our death. Everyone. And how much fits into twenty-one grams? How much is lost? When do we lose twenty-one grams? How much goes with them? How much is gained? Twenty-one grams. The weight of a stack of five nickels. The weight of a hummingbird. A chocolate bar. How much did twenty-one grams weigh?
—Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 21 Grams
Advent is considered a time of waiting and celebration, a time in which we expectantly look forward to the hope and peace already made available to us in the incarnation of Jesus. That being said, one of my best friends died in a tragic, horrific accident this time last year. It caught me entirely off guard, and it revealed a darker side to the season. Even in the midst of this victorious period of thanks, I was reminded, through the most drastic of events, that all is not yet right. The first coming of Christ has not yet resolved all of my issues; death still shows itself.
When coming face to face with death, as I did last Advent, many of us have been taught to turn things around. We’ve been taught to joyfully celebrate the life that has passed on and to minimize the drastic horror of the event itself. Theological quips that seek to account for the possibility of horror and death in the will of God, as if to brush off that horror in the name of everything working out for the better, only serve to write off the dread we inevitably feel, thereby forcing our mourning processes into the margins, where they stay until we decide to properly face them. And experience has shown us that such tendencies are incredibly unhealthy and unhelpful.
In the face of tragedy, then, I believe we must learn to pause. In the midst of such tragedies, we must learn to sit with our horror and dread. And we need to learn to label evil once more. What happened to my friend last year was not of God. We must learn to create the space to speak such realities without fear of undermining our own theologies and convictions.
At the same time, though, we must learn to remain silent. Rather than adequately accounting for and explaining away whatever horrific event we encounter, we must mourn its actuality. The great Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was no stranger to the horror and possibility of death, once wrote, “God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words. They should remain open. Our only comfort is the God of the resurrection, the Faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, who also was and is his God.” The power and possibility of death, even in the midst of the Advent season, is the ultimate denial of the goodness of creation. N. T. Wright acknowledges that death “speaks of a force of destruction, of anti-world, anti-God power being allowed to do its worst.”
When personally faced with such a force of destruction, we enter into the tomb with Jesus on Friday evening. We aim to remember the promise of life on the other side, but as Friday becomes Saturday, the tomb remains dark and cold. And there we wait. Much like the apostles on the Saturday after the crucifixion, we are forced to sit in silence, hoping only to bear up under the impossible weight of the reality of death. We are strung out somewhere between the resurrection of Jesus and the full implementation of his promises upon his final return. It is still Saturday, and we are still stuck in the tomb, waiting in the dark.
Advent is a season of becoming, of becoming a people who clearly envision and embody the life soon to come. It is, in that sense, about waiting. The hopeful side of Advent’s tragic tension forces us to recognize the second coming of Jesus as a perpetual coming. It is about the way God continually breaks into our lives through thin places. As we wait with an active spirit, we must begin enacting the future we imagine coming soon; we must put our hope into play now. Only then can we discover that there is a way of living which actually becomes the future we anticipate. In this sense, we are ushering in the fullness of the kingdom. It is the actualization of a hope.
Such actions and imaginings obviously have their limits. The question then becomes what we should do when we reach the end of our ropes, when we inevitably encounter the threads of our own limits, when all of our options have already run their courses. We must take our cues from the ten virgins that Jesus describes in Matthew 25 and wait passively—preparing, resting, and toiling for the bridegroom that will come when we least expect him.
We enter into the grave with Jesus and look for the resurrection of the dead in the midst of darkness. I remember my friend, and I mourn his death with the knowledge that things are not yet all right. It will take the conjuring of a certain hope to envision such realities in the midst of calamity from within the tomb on a long Saturday. We may, at points, see glimmers of light, and we will no doubt be overwhelmed by the darkness. And so we wait, searching for the resurrection of the dead, trying to remember that Sunday comes after Saturday.
 Bonhoeffer (circular letter, Sep. 20, 1939); and Wright, Evil & The Justice of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 81.
Zachary Thomas Settle
Zachary Thomas Settle is currently a PhD student in the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt, where he is working in the areas of theology and economy. He is the theology editor for The Other Journal, and he has written for numerous publications, including the Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory and The Other Journal. He is also the coeditor of Dreams, Doubt and Dread: The Spiritual in Film.