The star that Jean-Paul Sartre once was, doyen of his day’s incompletely educated intellectuals, has not quietly faded the way splashy names often do in the generation after they die. His star has astonishingly imploded. Some echoes remain, for he was not devoid of a way with words, nor was he without rays of light seeping through his melancholy philosophy. Even if his existentialism did not include belief in the existence of Hell, he described its non-existence well as the place where you have nothing to do but amuse yourself. That was before a new crop of people appeared, Twittering in solitude surrounded by crowds. It was not before people began making Christmas hellish by trying to celebrate a “joy without a cause.” That phrase from Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse was published in 1911, but two years earlier in All Things Considered he was quite specific: “There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes.”
Not to patronize them, it may be that those who light up Christmas trees in November are sending a frail signal that they do not want to be numbered among the people “who loved the dark rather than the light” (John 3:19). Perhaps even more poignantly, those who are hostile to Christmas and would ban its very mention, by so doing betray an uneasy suspicion that an Incarnation might be of more than moral interest, and could even have cosmic implications if it really happened, puncturing the numbness of their sense of life.
The grammatical construction called “apophasis,” which is saying what will not be said, works nicely here: it is futile to say that we should not trample over Advent in the rush to Christmas. It is even pointless to point out the inappropriateness of poinsettias around cathedral altars starting after Thanksgiving (“because the tourists expect that”) and avuncular clergymen hosting children’s Christmas parties before Gaudete Sunday. Advent is awkward because its mysteries of Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell are not the sort of things counter-tenors dressed as elves sing about. As St. Paul wrote in his Epistle to the New Yorkers: “Fuhgeddaboudit.”
In the four weeks of Advent, the Church stops us from skimming on the surface of reality: eating, working, shopping, sleeping, waking up and doing it all over again. These are part of the dance of life, but they are not its sum. “Angst” is a neurosis stemming from an unwillingness to face the Choreographer behind the choreography. Those threadbare philosophers who made existence an “ism” were very anxious indeed, smoking their cigarettes in cafes across the street from vacant churches.
A culture trapped in its own existence becomes no greater than itself. That old maxim perdures no matter how many times it is repeated: “A man wrapped up in himself becomes a very small package.” More important than wrapping gifts in Advent, is the obligation to unwrap the self: to confess to Christ the sins that belittle his image in man, and to live life as he wants it, so that we might rejoice with him forever and never be separated from him.
Our culture is enduring a severe test of itself. If Christ does not govern minds and hearts, mere humans will volunteer to do it, and they will do it badly. When the Judges of Israel could think only about their own existence with reference to how other people existed apart from divine regiment, they wanted a human king. Samuel warned them: “He will take the best of your fields, vineyards, and olive groves and give them to his officials…. He will tithe your flocks, and you yourselves will become slaves” (1 Samuel 8:14, 17). These days, he will take a lot more than ten per cent.
Our Lord promises that the truth will set us free: not truths but truth, and that truth is himself. In him is the explanation of Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. All facts physical and moral issue from him “who is before all things, and by him all things are held together” (Colossians 1:17). The “holy grail” of physics, a Unified Theory of the Universe, may not be attainable; but Einstein’s close friend, John Wheeler, of Johns Hopkins and Princeton, predicted shortly before he died in 2008 that if it is found, the biggest surprise about it will be its simplicity. Jesus could not have expressed himself more simply when he told Pontius Pilate: “Every one who is of the truth hears my voice” (John 18:37). Pilate’s life in a backwater of the empire was a dreary routine mired in cynicism. But even Pilate was amazed that Christ’s own people had “handed him over” to the government. By their own declaration when Pilate took a poll of them, they wanted “no king but Caesar.” Each generation is tempted to hand Christ over to cynics. We do it when we barter our conscience for comfort and our freedom for frivolity.
If Catholics behaved as Catholics, living as Catholics in their homes and voting as Catholics in the public forum, our culture would not be satisfied with getting little things from elected officials in exchange for moral dignity. If we only want things, we shall only be things. Amid the passing fashions of mindless men, Christ says, “…you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be a time for you to bear testimony” ( Luke 21: 12-13).
Advent is a time for such testimony. However many Advents we may be allowed to have, the last one will be the one for which all other Advents prepared. Even Jean-Paul Sartre seems to have glimpsed that, for as death approached he began to speak of some sort of Messianic Judaism. Later his mistress, Simone de Beauvoir, acidly called it “this senile act of a turncoat.” In a testimony recorded by his friend and former Marxist, Pierre Victor, Sartre said: “I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.”
It would be difficult to think of anyone more unlike Sartre than his contemporary political philosopher Charles Maurras who recovered his Catholic faith only late in life. In Sartre’s better moments, in the Second World War, he resisted the barbarism with which Maurras cooperated. But each had his last Advent. Sartre’s last words were, “I have failed.” As for Maurras, who had become deaf as a teenager, he said to the doctor at his bedside: “At last I can hear someone coming.”