Finitude in Advent
Google yields only one pop song, and an iffy one at that, with the word “finitude” in its lyrics.
Clearly, we need to raise the word’s cachet.
It seems to me that most songs are about love of various sorts, and love, for any number of reasons, regularly bumps up against finitude: beginnings, endings, possibilities, impossibilities, matches and misses.
FM is made for finitude!
I pointed out this lyric lacuna to my father, and he immediately set to work on the back of the nearest paper plate, listing all sorts of words ending in -tude:
Lots of lyrical latitude here, even for lines of great pulchritude (no need to settle into any platitudes), and any songwriter with even a little aptitude could whip up a real hit.
Advent is all about finitude.
The whole point of Advent, namely waiting, is a sign that we are finite: something is not yet come in its fullness, but we know we are expecting it until it arrives.
This Advent, my family and I have much waiting going on, as we are waiting, obviously, for the Christ to come.
We are also waiting for my sister and her family to arrive from Alaska for Christmas.
We are also waiting for my mother to die.
And I do not mean wait, as in an impatient-looking-at-our-watches-can-we-get-on-with-it waiting.
But I mean wait, as in hold vigil.
The process of her pancreatic cancer has been long and unpleasant at almost every turn. There is nothing buoyant about seeing a loved one collapse, and be collapsed, into the inevitable terminal diagnosis.
To make matters worse, we endured an experience with my mother’s initial hospice care that was so bad that when someone asked me, “Do you believe in purgatory now?” I said, “NO! I now believe in hell!”
It was so inexpressibly and inexcusably awful.
And battling the system on top of tending to my mother and our own impending loss, well, we were so weary.
So very weary.
Yet rather than keeping my mother, whom we love so much, in a situation that was deeply troubling on so many levels, my father and I steeled ourselves to bring her back home.
This approach, mind you, namely tending to her at home, had been our initial preference, until the symptoms of her dying became too much for my father and me to manage without an excess of martinis and weeping.
We are nothing if not caregivers in our family, and we have no troubles admitting when the need for care has escaped our capacity to offer it.
But suddenly, we found ourselves again faced with the necessity of bringing her home, and so, straight into our acknowledged ineptitude, here Mom was, coming back, and all Dad and I had going for us was our rectitude, which itself, depending on the moment, was questionable.
All other options were closed.
And there Dad and I were, faces smashed into finitude in many and various ways.
So I packed up suitcases for my two children and me to move in again with Dad, and with the help of a new hospice organization, we arranged for medical equipment to be delivered to their home, and we steeled ourselves to reprint the med charts we had created the first time around, hoping to God that they’d help us from making her troubles any worse by under-dosing her or overdosing her, and Dad readied the house to take his wife back for the last time.
And then, only hours before we were to bring her home, the blessed Dougherty House Hospice called, and said, like a clarion call in the night, like an angel over a field of shepherds watching at night, “There is room in the Inn!”
And so we piled Mom into Karl’s wheelchair accessible seat in our van, and we left the hospital, and we kept going straight instead of taking a right, and we brought my mother to the hospice door, and a volunteer greeted us with no sign of pity but instead radiant hospitality, and said, “I know just what room you’ll be in. I’ll bring warm cookies and hot coffee right on down once you get settled.”
And I could barely hold it together. “That,” I squeaked, “would be very fine.”
Up until that point, Dad and I, who each have a habit of coping with humor that sometimes verges on the inappropriate, had been praying a familiar prayer, but with a twist. Rather than a quiet and pious, “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest….” we offered it more like this: “Come Lord Jesus, BE OUR GUEST!”
YOU do it.
We are pooped.
(That’s vernacular for, “We are finite.”)
No amount of martinis and tears are going to help us this time.
We. Are. Pooped.
If you’re going to come, then come already.
And then we got a call, and cookies, and coffee, and suddenly there was a bit of the infinite breathing into our tired sails.
Jesus showed up.
Advent is the season where the finite yearns for the infinite, and in its infinite mystery, every now and we catch a glimpse of it.
Advent is the season of promises, the season in which we acknowledge that if everything were as it were supposed to be, we wouldn’t need the promises. But given that we are finite, and things aren’t all as they are supposed to be (we could just as easily not have received that call, and we are fully aware that many people don’t), we can at least bend toward the promises, maybe even acting into them and out of them.
Advent is the season of remindings that beginnings lead to endings and endings lead to beginnings. And Advent tells us that this cycle is one of both painful truth and defiant hope.
Advent is the season of becoming incarnate: not just the Son of God as the Son of Mary, but Christians into Christ-made-known.
Turns out, Advent gives us a terrific tune about finitude, though I concede it doesn’t use the word either.
It goes like this (the melody is quite haunting, but I found no good recording of it, and so the lyrics will have to do):
Each winter as the year grows older,
we each grow older too.
The chill sets in a little colder.
The verities we knew seem shaken and untrue.
When race and class cry out for treason,
when sirens call for war,
they overshout the voice of reason
and scream till we ignore all we held dear before.
Yet I believe beyond believing
that life can spring from death,
that growth can flower from our grieving
that we can catch our breath
and turn transfixed by faith.
So even as the sun is turning
to journey to the north
the living flame in secret burning
can kindle on the earth
and bring God’s love to birth.
O child of ecstasy and sorrows,
O Prince of peace and pain,
brighten today’s world by tomorrow’s
renew our lives again
Lord Jesus come and reign!