Reflections on Paris: We Await a New Day

This article was originally published for Mundelein Seminary

When I was a freshman in high school, I took a leap outside my comfort zone and chose to pass over studying Spanish like all of my friends and signed up for French class instead. From the outside, French is a confusing language; the spelling is funny, there are a whole host of confusing accent marks, and the sound of the words is like something from a different planet. But from the inside, French is the most beautiful language I’ve ever heard. It is subtle and sweet, tasteful and poignant; it is, truly, “la langue d’amour.” I took French for three years in high school and began a French minor in college; I’ve been to France twice. I still try to keep up with the French language and even incorporate it into my prayer life. My patron saint, St. Claude la Colombiere, is a French Jesuit who was the spiritual director to St. Margaret Mary Alocoque. I’m not French by heritage, but my heart is filled with a love for France and for her people. The attacks on Paris last week have troubled the world and, in a strange way that I’m having a little difficulty grasping, I’m finding myself in a state of sadness that I did not expect.

The day following the attacks in Paris, I woke up and got ready for prayer and Mass in the seminary’s St. John Paul II chapel. As I watched the sun come up and work its way through the clouds and trees outside and illuminate the stained glass around me, everything was utterly at peace. For the first time, this familiar peace troubled me; “I do not deserve this new day,” I thought. I was troubled by my new day, by being at peace in the seminary far away from the trouble and violence because I knew that for so many this new day was filled not with sun and trees, but with blood.

As the Church moves toward the season of Advent, she speaks to us to at Mass through readings with an explicitly eschatological tone. Eschatology is the area of theology concerning the “last things” and the end of time. These readings serve as a reflection of the coming of Christ and the end of the world. The drama and intensity of the readings and messages that the Church is trying to communicate build and build, culminating finally with the Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, one of the highest feasts on the Church calendar. We celebrate our long awaited King coming on the clouds of heaven with power and might, reigning over his people.

And then, darkness; silence.

Just like that, the Church calendar starts over, and we’re in the midst of darkness, surrounded by both grief over the current state of things and a profound sense of expectation. In silence and darkness, the whole universe stops and stares forward into the night, waiting for the rising sun of a new day. In stillness, all of creation watches and waits for the promised Messiah to break in and offer the light and hope of a new dawn, a new day which has been foretold from the beginning of time.

There is no coincidence, only providence. Let it not be lost on us that these heinous attacks occurred right in the midst of the Church’s own reflections on the end times and the coming of Christ. As the Church prepares itself for Advent and Christmas, I encourage each of us to “zoom out” in regard to the attacks in Paris and think, as the Church does, eschatologically.

During his discussion of dualism in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis makes the case that dualism is not all that distant from Christianity. Dualism, according to Lewis, is “the belief that there are two equal and independent powers at the back of everything, one of them good and the other bad, and that this universe is the battlefield in which they fight out an endless war.” There is indeed a war, Lewis argues, but not between two coequal powers; this war is a “civil war” between God and one of his creatures gone astray. The world, then, is “enemy-occupied territory” and, as followers of the universe’s “rightful king,” we must participate in this war.

Evidence for this war is everywhere. There are literal wars and acts of terror all over the world; famine and drought threaten thousands of people in every country; oppressive governments still stifle and withhold basic freedoms and the necessities of life. The world is at war and it has been for some time now; yet in the deepest parts of our very complex humanity, there shouts a voice which tells us this is not the way it is supposed to be, that we were not made for war and strife but for justice and peace. And so we find ourselves saying, particularly after events like the ones in Paris, “there must be some alternative.”

There is an alternative, one that C.S. Lewis can only describe as “shocking.” On one night, long ago, in an obscure place, “when peaceful stillness encompassed everything and the night in its swift course was half spent, [the] all-powerful word from heaven’s royal throne leapt into the doomed land.” (Wis 18:14) From that moment: light. Finally, the “rightful king” had “landed in disguise,” the king who was the “light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn 1:4-5)

And that’s it. I cannot offer any more than this. The coming of Christ, the child-king, the God-man into the world was the long-awaited dawn of a new day. On a very human level, this is not a satisfying answer. But at the deepest level and in the most profound way, the Christ event is the answer to every prayer we’ve ever uttered.

In the epilogue to The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape proposes a toast to his fellow tempters. In the midst of this discourse, he recalls how pleased he is that hell is full but is sure to note a touch of disappointment because the sinners there, while many in number, are boring sinners mostly there for small infractions and a lukewarm-ness of heart. He longs for the days of old when, though few in number, the men and women in hell were there because they committed great sins. Screwtape has only one regret about those golden days: wherever these men and women committed their great sins, there arose countless numbers of great saints.

The fear of Screwtape should be our goal: to live as saints. The answer to evil is Christ; Christ lives in us; it is up to us to bring him to the world. Let us take up this task and embrace the new day, whether we deserve it or not.