Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has been my unlikely Advent reading this year. In The Road, McCarthy describes a man and his son on a journey in a barren post-apocalyptic world. Everything is dying. Most humans are dead; those alive resort to cannibalizing children.
Amidst this carnage of evil and desolation, the father has to straddle the line between life and death because of his love for his son. The child is the man’s raison d’ȇtre. The man knows “only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the Word of God, God never spoke.” For the father, the boy is evidence of meaning in a world devoid of any reason to live. The powerful bond of love brings life doubly to the father and to the boy. Together, they travel south towards the sea in the hope of finding something better.
Yet on this path, death is always close. Bands of people, eager to do harm and even kill the child, also travel the road. Every time the man goes alone to check for food in ransacked houses and barns, he hands his son their gun with one bullet in it. The boy understands what this means. In this world bound in “darkness implacable,” every opportunity entwines possibilities for survival and death. The man has to fight for life and expect and embrace death.
As I saw the man struggle, I wondered if love always traps a person in this incongruent tragedy. If so, the arrival of new life, a new object of love, is a terribly sad event. As a fetus incubating in the mother’s womb, a baby is fed, protected, and nurtured in total dependency and oneness with the mother. Though the baby has a heartbeat and a mind of its own, the mother’s body sustains the child. In birth, what existed in a single symbiotic entity now disengages into separate life forms. The helpless baby is thrust into the severity of life’s elements: decay, chaos, and eventual death.
So it is in Christ’s birth. I pictured God as the Father broken with sadness as he sent his own son into the world. Fragile flesh enclothes the divine child, bearing on him the torment of sin. The child will be tempted to rebel against God, and Christ’s perfect resistance will cause others to scoff at him, abandon him, and even harm him. The Father knows this. In the child’s first breath of earthly life, the Father can already see the tendrils of sin wrap around his son’s throat.
This is a part of the Christmas story I’ve often ignored. As I read The Road, I contemplated the father’s desperate acts of love for his child and imagined what may have been some part of God’s experience in the event of his son’s incarnation. In my most profound experience of joy at the Savior’s arrival, perhaps there rang on heaven’s side a blow of sadness and pain wrought from the reality of impending suffering, separation, and death.
Yet love, even in the face of searing pain, does not rid itself of hope.
In The Road, when the father and child finally reach the sea, they find a filthy, lifeless slosh of detritus. There’s nothing better or new here. Yet the man decides to wade out to a stranded ship in search of supplies. Inside, he stumbles upon a sextant. It provides no tangible security or sustenance, but he holds up the exquisite instrument and stands transfixed in a daze of wonderment. The device beckons a hope deep within his love. By setting a navigator’s sights to the distant horizon and to the stars, the age-old tool provided belief to wanderers that in the dark recesses beyond sight, there is a new place. In the same way, the man’s love for his son had willed an unaccountable hope to defy death.
In the Christmas story, God’s faithfulness accounts for his enduring hope. He sends the promised Messiah and he invites us to rejoice with him. He commands his angels to herald the news to sleepy shepherds, and he brightens a star to lead the Magi to an unbeknownst king, born in a manger in the lowly town of Bethlehem. God comes to us and calls us to places beyond the horizon where we cannot see. So we also turn our gaze to the heavens and to God’s instruments of divine guidance and trust. And when we follow, we will surely find ourselves at the feet of Jesus, the Christ and Savior. Our eternal hope.
Greg Kim (’14) graduated with a BA in history and international relations. He lived in Grand Rapids for a year and has since moved back to South Korea to fulfill his mandatory military service.