I was reading a book recently—I don’t remember exactly when—when, after reading a particular paragraph, I closed the book in irritated frustration. “I’ve read about a hundred paragraphs just like that one,” I thought. I had the same experience on my morning walk today, listening to a sermon. I heard the preacher breathlessly declaring the wondrous significance of some Greek word and what it meant for us today, and thought to myself, “I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard something like that before and it contributes precisely nothing to my understanding of this text.” So many words—in print or out loud—saying the same old things, again and again and again…
Of course, it didn’t take too long for my critical intolerance of the lack of novelty on offer to transfer to myself. Each week, after all, I get up in front of a bunch of people and tell some version or another of a very, very old story that at least some of those listening have heard many, many times. At some point, I may have been under the illusion that my sermons would without exception be wondrously unique or that I would, on a weekly basis, solve some vexing theological issue or provide some penetrating moment of inspiration for someone or whatever. But that bubble burst long ago, as bubbles are prone to doing. Whether it is as human beings in general or as Christians in particular, few of us will introduce anything of genuine novelty to the cosmos. All of us are, in many ways, sliding into grooves that have been carved out long in advance, finding our place in stories and ideas and questions and sorrows that long predate our arrival on the scene. That’s just the way the world is.
I don’t know when this realization occurs for most people. I’m not even sure when, specifically, it occurred to me. I remember studying philosophy when I was younger and exerting considerable energy in trying to “solve” this or that problem, to come up with a response to this or that intractable problem, to write a paper that was singularly illuminating or revelatory, to present this or that old, old problem in a way that nobody had ever done before. Maybe I could stump the professor! Maybe I would be the one who, once and for all, solved the problem of evil! Um, right. Well, maybe not.
Whenever it happens, I think most of us do, however grudgingly, come to some kind of peace with the fact that much of life is about the recycling of old ideas, the encountering of old problems, being confronted by the same old challenges as countless millions who have gone before us. There are occasionally genuinely new discoveries, sure, but these are relatively rare and they tend to nibble around the periphery of human existence rather than addressing deep, existential issues that are as old as time. The invention of Twitter is undoubtedly momentous for our race in ways that I am, at present, incapable of appreciating, but I don’t anticipate it unlocking the mysteries of life’s deepest meaning anytime soon.
We use the word the word “new” a lot during the Advent season. A new church year, new beginnings, Christ coming “anew,” the promise of a new heaven and a new earth, etc. We use the word, but I wonder if even the word “new” can get very old. I wonder if we really anticipate newness… if we really believe that something new could come into the sameness we are used to. Another season of Advent, another Christmas, another looming orgy of spending and bad advertising, another deluge of Santas and elves and reindeer and Christmas tunes on the radio. And, for churchy folks, another season of manger scenes, carols and candles, and lofty language about waiting and longing and hoping for the Christ child. There is some comfort—joy, even!—in predictable rhythms and old, old stories, but there is also a longing for something to break out of the routine—for this God who does new things to do it again.
Maybe amidst all the “oldness” of our lives and of a world where there is “nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9), we really do need the season of Advent to keep us alert at least to the possibility of newness. Maybe it is this old, old story of a God who comes in truly unpredictable, unexpected, and unsettling ways to people probably more well acquainted with and weary of oldness than we are, that can protect and preserve us from cynicism and despair and keep us alive to the unimaginably new. And who knows? Maybe there is yet life to be found in these well-worn words that have been spoken and sung by so many before us, this crazy story about a little baby, born to fulfill the hopes and fears of all the years.