Is this all there is?
This is the great punch line, the so-called “insight,” of so much entertainment of the past century. In the book, movie, play, or pop song, our protagonist, whoever he is, after laboring to achieve ideals, struggling to maintain virtues, and pursuing the highest possibility, pulls up short, says, Is this all there is? -- then walks away in disgust. Such pessimism passes for profundity for plenty of people of our age, excusing them from evaluation and further effort. It is what it is, and It’s all good. Whatever.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, says the prophet. Before we can claim the light, we can learn by asking first, what is the darkness? It is the perduring ignorance, renewed in every generation, that closes itself off to the enlightenment that there is more than this – more than we have, more than we see, more than we can achieve; more than this world and more than what we can do with it. Before God can offer us the possibility of being with Him, before He can offer to deliver us from all that keeps us from Him, before He can cheer us with the promise of coming to dwell among us, He takes the first necessary step of identifying Himself to us, letting us know He Is.
In the days of Advent we walk by the light of the prophecies, the promises of God to come and deliver us. Deliver us from what? would be the question of the day for anyone who is unaware of just how far we are from the life we yearn for, the companionship we are made for, the One who made us, and Whose company we desire even before we know who He is. We crave deliverance not only from present danger, not only from concrete evil, but from futility – the futility of our own undertakings and strivings, the futility of “carpe diem” – of trying to seize the day.
At the heart of our divine worship is the desire to be reminded that we are not “all there is.” We do not try to get God’s attention in order to avoid destruction by some malevolent force, like the dust-speck people in Horton Hears a Who, shouting We are here we are here we are HERE! Rather, we still our noise, and tune our hearts to hear Him who promises, Behold, I come. The light that shines reveals Himself, and in so doing, reveals our distance from him. The light of His mercy does not say to us, that’s where you are, and that’s okay. No; He wants us to want Him to gather us to Himself.
Tuesday we open the extraordinary jubilee, the Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis. He exhorts us to offer and to seek mercy, to enter into the mystery of the Mercy of God. Initiating this grace-filled year on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary reminds us that God acts first, in His prevenient (“coming before”) grace. In His mercy, He prepares a place for His mercy to occur, and to take flesh. He who would offer us mercy, first makes us aware of our need for it, so that we may desire it, and desiring it, request and receive it.
In Advent, we rejoice in God’s first mercy, when He lets us know that this is NOT all there is.