By Joseph Mangina
I suspect that among the reasons Advent is so beloved is that it gives us permission to suspend our toxic religious positivity and speak with truth and clarity about the darkness around us. There is something bracing about Advent. Here we name the darkness for what it is, and confess our confidence that, despite the world’s evils, a Judge is coming who will set things right: “Lo, he comes, with clouds descending.”
Advent is an eschatological season, and just for that reason a time when there is much talk about fruit. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John the Baptist warns his hearers, in a passage that appears as this year’s Gospel reading for Advent 1 (Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary). Fruit and harvest metaphors are so common in Scripture that we are liable to ignore them as so much rhetorical decoration. In an urban society like our own, fruit is something you pick up in the grocery store: shall we have oranges this week, or kiwis? But in an ancient agricultural society — and even today in rural communities throughout the world — the fate of the harvest was a matter of life and death. Every harvest is in a sense a judgment. Which is why the figures of fruit and harvest lend themselves so well to the display of divine judgment. Hence John’s dire warning: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 3:8-10).
Other passages from across Scripture play variations on the same theme. One thinks of Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard, where the LORD excoriates his vineyard (Israel) for producing only wild grapes; of the barren fig tree, which Jesus strangely curses for failing to yield fruit out of season; of the harvest in the Apocalypse, where an angel casts the vines of the earth into “the great winepress of the wrath of God” (Isa. 5:1-7; Mark 11:12-14; Rev. 14:19-20). Even the seemingly benign metaphor of the vine and the branches in John’s gospel comes with a warning label attached: “If anyone does not abide in me [i.e., so as to bear fruit] he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6).
Harvest is an apt figure for human life, not least because — like life itself — it combines goodness with finitude. The fruit of creation is good, being blessed by God. But it is also finite. Both fruit and our lives have only so much time in which to be good. The clock ticks, the calendar days are marked off, and so the time given to us gradually erodes. According to Paul Griffiths, in Decreation, a remarkable meditation on the last things, what he calls “metronomic time” or the time of the clock is killing us. This is a chief mark of “the devastation,” a term Griffiths uses to describe the world in its present state of disorder and decay under the not-so-tender ministrations of time. The axe is laid at the root of the trees. After that, there will be no more time for harvests, or indeed for anything else. Time given will be time past. According to Revelation, “there [shall] be time no longer” (Rev. 10:6, KJV. Modern translations often render this as “there shall be no more delay,” but the King James is closer to the Greek.)
But that is only half the story, because — as Griffiths, thankfully, also makes clear — the world of fallen time is preceded, sustained, and interpenetrated by God’s grace. True, there is only so much time. But in a world where the Word has become flesh and dwelt/dwells among us, we are able to inhabit time hopefully. Thus vines, vineyards, and wine in Scripture are also figures for joy. This is why we must not allow the bracing sobriety of Advent to tilt over into mere pessimism. The pessimist thinks she knows what time it is — it is always the time for thinking badly of the world and of one’s own life. But that is not to take into account the character of God, who is not miserly with his blessings. The Judge of the earth and Lord of the harvest is also the Father in heaven, who fills even our fallen time with grace, hope, and possibility.
No one knew this better than John Donne. The Dean of St. Paul’s was a master of the quotable aphorism, and one of his most quoted is this: “In heaven it is alwaies Autumne.” Taken out of context, this could be read as either a compliment to the fall season or a metaphysical remark about the nature of heaven. But it is neither of these. Rather, it forms part of an extraordinary skein of reflections Donne weaves on God’s never-ending readiness for mercy. Prior to our bearing of fruit for God is God’s bearing fruit for us:
God made Sun and Moon to distinguish seasons, and day, and night, and we cannot have the fruits of the earth but in their seasons: But God hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies; In paradise, the fruits were ripe, the first minute, and in heaven it is alwaies Autumne, his mercies are ever in their maturity. We ask panem quetidianum, our daily bread, and God never sayes you should have come yesterday, he never sayes you must againe to morrow, but to day if you will heare his voice, to day he will heare you. If some King of the earth have so large an extent of Dominion, in North, and South, as that he hath Winter and Summer together in his Dominions, so large an extent East and West, as that he hath day and night together in his Dominions, much more hath God mercy and judgement together: He brought light out of darknesse, not out of a lesser light; he can bring thy Summer out of Winter, though thou have no Spring; though in the wayes of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintred and frozen, clouded and eclypsed, damped and benummed, smothered and stupified till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the Sun at noon to illustrate all shadowes, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries, all occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons.
Donne preached this sermon on the evening of Christmas Day, 1624. We are often told not to ignore Advent in our mad rush to get to Christmas. This is good advice, though the converse is also true. We should not let Christ’s future coming as the Judge overshadow God’s present-day will for mercy. “In heaven it is alwaies Autumne,” because Mercy is Who God is, also in his exercise of judgment. Let us “heare his voice” in this season as in all seasons.