When I was six years old, my mom and I stopped at one of those self-serve car washes. You know the ones with the big octo-arm vacuum stations and the bank of carports rigged with power-washers? They’re a dying breed.
We’d begun at the vacuums, and my mom had removed all the floor mats and sundries. With coins loaded, she yanked and stretched the noisy hose into the interior coves of our Honda Civic. I was waiting next to the cylindrical vacuum housing when I saw something curious resting on its concrete base.
It was a small, oddly-shaped nail. I picked it up and examined it; fiddling with it in my small hands. We had just been in the mountains hiking (ergo, the carwash), and I had brought home an interesting rock. Flecked with shimmering quartz and pyrite; it was about the size of a large avocado.
I decided to use it to pound the nail into the concrete. I grasped the peculiar nail between my left thumb and middle finger, positioned it up and down, then took the rock in my right hand and commenced hammering.
The object exploded between my fingers. It had not been a nail at all. It was a bullet. My hand was covered in blood. I began screaming.
My mom set me quickly in the car and we zoomed away, leaving behind much jetsam. Off we rushed to the nearest emergency room, which happened to be at the hospital where I was born.
By the time we arrived, I had gone into shock. Though crying, I was no longer hysterical. We were ushered quickly into the emergency bay. Surrounded by scrub-blue curtains, doctors and nurses began attending my hand. One doctor had a brief consultation with my mom, then turned to me and he said he was going to have to start cleaning it out.
He began daubing away the blood, then rinsing around the wound. Finally, he retrieved a liquid and looked at me. “This is going to sting.” The moment the antiseptic made contact with the wound, there was a jolt of pain – far exceeding that of the explosion itself.
Advent hits the wounds of our world like lightning. At least it should. The jolt tells you it’s working.
So the magi arrived with their strange gift of myrrh. Myrrh? An embalming ointment, for an infant? What dark humor is this?
Monty Python’s Life of Brian may be the most irreverent movie ever made. It traces the life events of the hapless and reprobate title character, as his biography parallels that of Jesus; from Bethlehem to a Roman cross, upon which he is found whistling and singing, “Always look on the bright side of life.” It is surreal. But, like most surrealism, the creative ploy is juxtaposition.
We may think Life of Brian a crass and unnecessary piece of sacrilege, yet it merely juxtaposes human folly against the divine folly of the incarnation itself. Only by emphasis does it offer anything more ludicrousness than Advent. Even then.
In his darting little book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale, Frederick Buechner insists laughter must accompany the Gospel:
Where does the laughter come from? It comes from as deep a place as tears come from, and in a way from the same place. As much as tears do, it comes out of the darkness of the world where God is of all missing persons the most missed.
Advent is as sublime as it is ridiculous; a juxtaposition breaching fountainheads of all manner of tears. It is indeed a sort of comedy. But what sort? I would argue it is improv, whose governing tenet is “yes, and.” Improv is built from games and scenes and forms, yet the magic steals in through the doorway of availability.
There’s an improv game called, “What’s in the box?” One player approaches another and holds out an invisible box. The other player then asks, “What’s in the box?” Regardless of the answer, the response must conclude the phrase, “That’s great, because…”
If it isn’t quite obvious, all the players of Advent are improvising.
When the magi arrive during the opening sequence of Life of Brian, his mom Mandy begins shooing them away, before discovering they’ve come bearing gifts. Yet the myrrh leaves her nonplussed. Upon collecting the gifts, she unceremoniously bids them depart saying, “If you’re dropping by again, do pop in. Thanks a lot for the gold and frankincense, but . . . don’t worry too much about the myrrh next time.” How cheeky.
Yet Advent demands something more brash: “yes, and.” Life of Brian, ridiculous though it be, is still sketch comedy; scripted from the outrageous instincts of a surrealist troupe. The improv of Advent permits no rejected offerings. The proper term for this is accepting – or overaccepting – in contrast to blocking or rejecting.
The Anglican ethicist, Sam Wells writes,
There’s this notion of overaccepting, where you fit the smaller story that has come your way – which often you didn’t invite or go looking for – into the larger story of what God’s doing with the world.
And so we find Mary and Joseph overaccepting again and again and again – these strange offerings within God’s staggering story. When offered myrrh, they eclipse the surrealism even of “the Pythons” through acceptance. And so too must we. Myrrh may be unbidden, but let us accept this gift as members of the holy family.
The word for myrrh is a derivative of the Arabic murr – bitter. Like frankincense, myrrh is a resin; extracted from a tree’s protective bark through “repeated wounding.” Its fragrance is rich and plumb-like yet also etheric and medicinal – even disturbing. It can be burned as incense however, more traditionally, it is distilled to an antiseptic balm. If gold signaled royalty and frankincense worship, myrrh imported a mood of mortality.
Thus we sing,
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
What can it mean to accept this gift? Mary had already heard tell something of a sword that was to pierce her soul. Any soul found pilgriming through this world is bound to endure many a sword’s plunge.
“Myrrh? That’s great, because…”
As I type, periodically I stop to rub my left thumb against its adjacent middle finger; still creased across its print from the bullet’s rupture. In a sense, they embalmed my hand; wrapped it in gauze like the hand of a mummy. I spent the next week at school with a mummified hand. As I type, other scars prick my notice: loss and betrayal, failure and fear alike zig-zagging my own soul. I know you have them also. They are inevitable.
To accept myrrh must mean accepting its ongoing necessity; the bitter strike our wounds require. To overaccept it means something more macabre and more mysterious.
In TS Elliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi,” he imagines an aged magi “setting down” Advent recollections.
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
The myrrh alerts us that Advent is as much about birth as death. “Had thought they were different,” but now aren’t so sure. Elliot’s magi continue,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
The death rate remains 100% among our race. Eventually something overtakes us all. No amount of myrrh will will heal or preserve your body indefinitely, let alone your soul. And here comes Advent’s jolt.
Buechner puts it this way, “The tragic is the inevitable. The comic is the unforeseeable.” The gathering gloom of Advent’s myrrh holds a precipitous stroke. Something deeper than death’s deep, dark, and hoary hex.
God’s own availability has begat something unforeseeable!
Who can forget Aslan’s words to Susan and Lucy upon return from his death by the Witch’s blade?
Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation.
Advent beckons us gaze further into the stillness and the darkness – “the darkness of the world where God is of all missing persons the most missed” – and to behold the arrival of One who would make good on the words of Hosea:
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
This birth, like all others, was to include a death. But, unlike any other, it was to become the death of Death itself. Elliot’s magi were right, though they couldn’t quite put their finger on it.
After what was thought to be the bitterest end, more myrrh was brought by those who loved Jesus most, yet they truly needn’t have worried about it. The only things to be found were a stone rolled away, grave clothes, and a few strips of linen gauze – oh, and an angel with a very wry question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
It was the equivalent of an improv player saying “scene” – the Advent form in brilliant denouement .
The myrrh was returned to its place that day; an ornament of Advent fulfilled.