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Advent 1: slouching beast or beastly hope?

We are approaching two years since the Covid 19 pandemic first emerged. Subsequently, we have witnessed unprecedented changes around the world. A virus that emerged in a different continent took us all by surprise. In only a few months, it triggered lockdowns worldwide, due to which our daily lives have taken a sudden and calamitous turn. And so we rightly ask: When and how will this end?

Similar questions were asked just over a century ago (in 1918) when a different pandemic moved across the world. It activated a temporary closing of schools, cinemas and churches, and businesses to curb the spread of infection.

In the middle of pandemic, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats nearly lost his pregnant wife to the Spanish flu. Yeats looked at the world in despair. It was saturated with violent rebellions in Ireland against the British empire. He noticed new technologies of warfare capable of inflicting horror of chemical war and poison gas. In response to the feelings of abandonment and despair, Yeats wrote a poem entitled "The Second Coming."

Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert A shape with lion body and the head of a man, A gaze blind and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

As Yeats looks around his world, he sees nothing but signs of despair everywhere. He is torn between wanting to believe in something liberating to end all the suffering afflicting the world and his scepticism of Christian hope that "everything will be okay." His writings point to the social ills of modernity. He is concerned about the rupture of traditional family and societal structures, a steady decline in religious faith, and the collective sense of purpose. The old rules no longer apply, and there's nothing to replace them. Hence, "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold."

Yeast believes something like the Christian idea of a "second coming" is about to happen. But instead of earthly peace, it will bring terror. The slouching beast is the force of uncontrollable chaos. All this because, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity."

In some ways, Yeast's "Second Coming" perfectly renders our 21st Century reality. Violence and division at all levels of society seem to be at their peak. A sense of hopelessness is present in the daily news. The Spiritus Mundi (Spirit of the World) often appears not as one of peace and hope but of ever-growing unrest and discord. Not to forget the fear of contagion virus swirling over us.

But while there is much to admire about Yeats's "Second Coming" and its prophetic insights, it seems to miss the mark as it surrenders future hopes to present despair. It's not the beast that "Slouches toward Bethlehem" but rather a divine hope slowly moving toward Bethlehem. If anything, it's a beastly hope.

Indeed, Advent is an antidote to the apparent hopelessness that Yeats felt, and that may well be weighing us down as well. Advent speaks of a hopeful future. At the start of Advent this year, we hear Jeremiah's Old Testament prophecy that predicts the coming of the Messiah, the Saviour.

Jeremiah 33:14-16
14The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The Lord is our righteousness."

There is no surprise that as the day of Jesus' birth approached, people expected a king. They grew up listening to Scriptures full of promises like this one from Jeremiah. They had suffered a lot and now they look toward a time when God would send someone to rule over their rulers. Although, the words "righteous," "spring up," and "execute justice and righteousness" are not the best description of a fragile newborn child born in a backwater of the Roman Empire to an unwed teenaged mother. Nor does it precisely depict a man who spent most of his time around the most unrighteous people on the dusty roads of Palestine.

Yet, this text from Jeremiah is full of hope and life. It points us beyond surrendering our present realities to despair. It reminds us that the one who came to us in Bethlehem is much stronger than any Beast that may today slouch toward Bethlehem or our homes, for that matter.


Norman Jeffares commentary on the Poems of W.B. Yeats.

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