Fall and the cusp of the transition to winter coincide with a host of religious celebrations. Eid al-Fitr in the Muslim tradition, is a three-day celebration that occurred this year in August marking the end of Ramadan and known as the Festival of Fast-Breaking. Eid Ul Adha additionally took place this year in October, recognizing Abraham’s sacrifice. Hannukah in the Jewish tradition, constitutes eight days of celebration commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in the second century B.C.E. after Jewish revolutionaries rose up against Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean revolt. Kwanzaa, in the African-American tradition, is a week-long celebration of family, community, and culture.
Of all the celebrations in this pocket of several weeks, the Christian tradition’s celebration of Advent is the longest–encompassing all four weeks in the month of December. It also occurs every year during the winter solstice, a time in which the days shorten, with longer periods of dark, the lengthening of shadows and the arrival of chilly or cold weather that can cover nature like a shroud.
This is an important time in an agricultural calendar, as fall gives way to winter, and the cycle of nature re-introduces the human race to the importance of light and warmth in both practical and metaphorical ways. The hope of spring and nature’s annual foiling of death becomes a pregnant pause in human memory and consciousness during the period of the annual calendar in which many parts of the world are prone to shiver and melancholy.
The early Christians were masters at coopting the celebrations and symbols of nature, cultures and natural religion and giving it new meaning. They were also exceptional in their ability to take these festivals and symbols and use them to educate their people in the ways of strengthening the human spirit. For most Christian traditions, Advent is a time to train muscles for hoping and celebrating when life is least conducive to such positive thinking and merriment. In times of difficulty, or a long, seemingly unending wait for relief or promise, Advent teaches the human spirit patience and the ability to find forms of blessing even in harsh and cold times. A soul tempered to hope and celebrate during challenge is a soul never dominated by darkness and despair.
A recently released film, The Book Thief, captures the mystery of the human resilience that is celebrated by Christians at this time of the year. The Book Thief is based on the New York Times Best Seller of the same name, and is a unique kind of reflection on the human capacity to not only survive difficult times but to thrive, to not only relate to others when it is most difficult, but to genuinely love them in their difference and to allow their difference from us to share in the molding of our own worldview and values.
The book celebrates the human drive to ask questions of ourselves and others, as well as the world around us – and, in doing so, to consistently give birth anew to our imaginations. The narrator of the book, and less obviously in the movie, is the Angel of Death.
The main character of The Book Thief is Liesel Meminger, a nine-year old girl who is taken from her mother to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann, foster parents in the fictitious town of Molching, in the late 1930s of the Third Reich in Germany. The house is on Himmel Street, meaning literally heaven or sky in German, although the collection of flawed human beings living in squalor in the neighborhood are not an obvious group to model a celestial paradise.
On the way to her new home, Liesel’s younger brother dies and at the graveside service she “steals” a book dropped by one of the gravediggers: The Grave Digger’s Handbook: A 12-Step Guide to Grave Digging Success. Using this unlikely text, and later one stolen from the ashes of a Nazi book burning demonstration, the illiterate Liesel begins to learn to read with the help of her new foster father.
As Death trolls the earth for victims, he tries not to take notice of the people grieving their loved ones. But, in the young girl standing at her brother’s graveside Death sees one of the things that haunts him in his work–the “perpetual survivor,” someone who is an expert is getting “left behind.” Death sees humans at their best and worst and learns to take an interest in the human soul’s ability to long and wait and to create beauty in the midst of ugliness, joy in the midst of despair, peace in the midst of war, love in an environment of hate, humanity in a world of injustice and callousness.
Liesel’s gravedigger book leads to other books, including sneaking into the local mayor’s house to borrow books from his well-stocked library. Meanwhile, the younger girl’s foster parents hide in their basement a young Jewish man named Max, who becomes Liesel’s confidant. Max teaches the Lutheran girl central insights of Jewish wisdom, and when Max becomes deathly ill in the cold, damp basement of the Hubermann house, hovering between life and death, Liesel returns the favor by reading him back to health.
The movie (and even more so, the book) takes the viewer through one family and personal challenge after another. But, no matter what happens to Liesel, no matter what life takes away from her or tries to crush in her, she never gives up on hope, never stops loving and opening herself to love, and never stops imagining a better world. She also never allows the chasm between her imagination and the broken, imperfect nature of the world to send her into the kind of spiral of disappointment and bitterness that breaks so many human spirits in this often harsh world. This power of the imagination is a distinctively “Jesuit” spiritual insight. For Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, imagination served as an indispensable pathway to encountering God and truth.
Liesel’s father, Hans, calls her, “your majesty,” in the film, even though the girl is a poor, abandoned orphan. Through her imagination, which is cultivated by those she loves around her, she learns to grow into the princess her father sees in her from the beginning. Through discipline, curiosity, courage, vulnerability, and integrity, she transforms herself into one of those humans who can live in the world but never get dragged down to become of it. She becomes what God hopes for us all – to become spiritual royalty.
Hope springs eternal in The Book Thief, and Death is befuddled and intrigued by these human capacities. In the book, Death admits he often either overestimates or underestimates the human race, and one day longs to ask Liesel “how the same thing could become so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.” You’ll have to read the book or see the movie to see if Death ever gets around to asking the question.
Our potential as human beings will never come close to full realization until we learn use our imaginations to reach beyond our longing, our experience of incompleteness and the darkness around us. The world always needs people of practical and practiced hope. Those with spirits stronger than the worst life can throw against us rise above the ashes. Such is the power of an Advent heart and mind.
This is part of what the study of theology is intended to do for a student. It does not make us pleasing to God so we are guaranteed a life without hardship. Such study is intended to do to us what The Book Thief learned to do as she entered the alternate reality of story and the rich life of the mind fully engaged. Such study is intended to expand, deepen, stretch, and broaden our own capacity to recognize God, truth, beauty, goodness, and especially the force of love operating in the bad times as well as the good, in the periods of light and lightness of being, as well as the periods of shadows and the heaviness of life’s burdens.
In this time of Advent in the Christian cycle, may you experience the power of hope to lift you above every impediment and adversity, and may you come to know the freedom of Liesel, the book thief, a single soul that confounded even Death.