So the season of Advent comes around again. The waiting, the cold bite of the wind, the familiar carols reheated. Hopes and fears. It’s my favourite time of year, I think, partly because the event of the Incarnation is still just so impregnated with mystery and rich with metaphor. So I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts all focused on advent, and the advent-ure that it invites us to participate in – theologically, philosophically, metaphysically and personally.
I’d been wondering what to kick the series off with, but the other night I went to see the new Coen Brothers film A Serious Man, and it really made a big impression. The piece is complex and highly Jewish, and I’m aware that as a non-Jew and non-film-buff the depth of my understanding of it is going to be limited. But I feel that it does have something very interesting to say as we head into Advent, something that marks the bifurcation of Judaism and Christianity.
The film appears to be a meditation on the effects of inaction. The recurring refrain in the film is ‘But I haven’t done anything’: the protagonist’s life is falling apart, but he’s not done acted in any way to precipitate these events, and now seems powerless to turn them. He visits a number of Rabbi’s for advice, all of whom are totally impotent and offer nothing. No theological solace, no way out, no hope.
As the film draws to a close – and I’m sure there will be many feet of type written about the significance of the ending – we finally see our ‘serious man’ take some action, with the rubber on the end of a pencil, and an envelope of cash. With God apparently unable or unwilling to act to help him – despite his very serious attempts to try to engender that help – he takes matters into his own hands, and thus in his immoral act rejects his faith.
What struck me as I turned the film over in my mind was how Advent really is the final critique of this impotent and inactive God. In the classical sense, much of Judaism has an element of tragedy about it – ‘history moving from a glorious beginning to a tarnished end.’ But the origins of Christianity celebrate the fact that it is pure comedy: ‘moving through trouble towards an end that is actually a glorified new beginning.‘ The divergence of Christianity and Judaism hangs on whether one believes that in Jesus we see God actually taking action, stepping into history and moving the pieces again.
Both of those are quotes from Peter Leithart’s book ‘Deep Comedy‘, and my first Advent[ure] in Incarnation is thus to see this season as the opening lines to the most tremendous joke. It is a joke in which roles are subverted and words are twisted. It is a joke which is shocking in the extreme – with God impregnating a girl. It is a joke in which something actually happens. A joke in which the apparent tragedy of human history suddenly takes a comic turn.
As Leithart writes as he concludes his book:
[Shakespeare’s] Twelfth Night is named for the last night of the Christmas season, the final celebration of the Incarnation. It is a night for carnival, for the suspension of the serious and structured. Malvolio wants to stop the merriment, and so it is fitting that he is ultimately excluded from it. He is excluded and overcome through trickery, practical joking, mirth. Satan digs a pit for the merry, but Satan falls into the very pit of merriment. And it tortures him forever.
‘See, I am doing a new thing. Can you not perceive it?’ As the world steers to tragedy, I’m beginning a new joke. Don’t you get it?