The Nature of Wonder
I have been thinking a lot about wonder lately, and by “lately” I mean at least the last 14 months. Wonder is one of the deepest joys of my soul, and I am never more tempted to despair than when I fall into the false belief that the world is drained of wonder, that perhaps we have appeared too late in history to see true wonder.
You see, wonder is proof that the suspicion we harbor in our heart of hearts is true: the world is more than we thought. Wonder may break our intellectual categories; then again, it may not. But it approaches them with a carelessness that arrests us. In this way, even when it falls within what we can understand, it nevertheless witnesses to a reality well beyond our sense of what is possible. In other words, even when wonder falls under reason, it always proceeds from beyond reason. Our understanding is incidental, unnecessary for the experience of wonder. Indeed, “wonder” is the root of the Latin word miraculum. This shows how casual the relation of wonder to reason is—not because wonders are somehow inimical to reason, but rather because they are not really addressing reason at all. Wonder calls to the heart, though it does not care if reason overhears the call.
Advent is a time for the Christian to take notice that the world is much more wonder-full than we are aware in our daily lives. The first work of Advent is not the transformation of the world into the wonderful, magical land of Christmas, but rather the revelation that the world is and has for quite some time been such a place. In our history, at a date and time we can roughly fix and at a place we can visit, God entered history, lived, died, and rose again. This world is therefore the greatest fantasy setting ever imagined.
Wonder shines, because wonder is light. All wonder is light, and all light is wonder-full, for every good gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights (James 1:17). Fundamentally, then, what we are watching for at Advent is the illumination of the world.
Dwelling in Darkness: Advent and Judgment
We wait as those who dwell in darkness. I want to lean into that word, “dwell.” We don’t merely sit in darkness, we sit in darkness so habitually that it becomes a way to describe who we are, to pick us out from other people. “To which people did the Lord of light go?” “The sitting-in-darkness people.” “Oh, those guys. Wow.” We dwell in darkness, and in these dark places we watch continually for the first rays of dawn.
We often give up on this project of waiting, because we flee the darkness. We are creatures of light and we cannot forget that: we long for light. Why then, when Christ comes, does He find us sitting in darkness? Because we are not just seekers after the light; we are also rebels against it. We have noticed the light within us, which is a reflection of the true light, and mistaken our nature.
We think we are lanterns rather than mirrors and that we can go off on our own and shine just as brightly. But a mirror placed in a dark room reflects nothing. And yet we dare not re-emerge into the light of day, for we know that the light that awaits us there is not only true but holy, and if it encounters us, it will do so in judgment.
And so we are held by the contradictory desire to flee light and to seek it out. We congregate in the murky half-light at the boundary between light and darkness, constantly yearning towards the brighter regions and simultaneously shrinking back from them.
My eyes are unusually sensitive to light, and there is this trick they have with a dark room: when plunged into darkness, I at first see nothing, but if I begin to look around, in all but the most absolute of darknesses I see gradations. If I try to focus on the lighter parts of the darkness, I continue to be unable to see much. If instead I focus on the darkest parts, staring without blinking and allowing my vision to go somewhat blurry, I experience what feels like a miracle: the gradations all fade to black, and my entire visual field goes black, as if I had closed my eyes. But if I continue looking for a little longer, my pupils achieve maximum dilation and the world rushes back to me, transformed into a wildly varied field of deeper gradations than before. I can make out shapes and objects, can distinguish the deeper darkness of solid objects from the gossamer grey of air. I can even, perhaps, make out surface features on objects.
I would suggest that this is an authentic Advent experience. We are tempted to rush out of the darkness into the light—to turn on the lights, or to flee into the next room. But the darkness in which we find ourselves is not a darkness we can dispel with the flip of a switch, nor is it one we can flee. The world is dark, and we too are dark. It is with us as with Milton’s Satan: “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (Paradise Lost, IV.75). We cannot get out of the world, and more deeply, we cannot get away from ourselves.
And so Advent is a penitential time, for we cannot greet the coming holy king without first facing our own unholiness. Or, to be more precise, we can, but then we will see Him come in terrible judgment. For our sins will be laid bare: either before He comes, or at His coming. Either way, when we speak of His coming, we must therefore speak of His judgment. And we cannot rush past this judgment.
To understand what comes next, it is crucial to understand something the Church has long held to be fundamental about God: God is not made up of parts, and in God nothing is divided. God is, as we theologians say, simple. And so God’s judgment is not something other than God, or something removable from God. When we have understood God well, God’s judgment is seen to be a consequence of the fact that God is the type of God that He is.
This underscores the futility of attempting to flee from the divine judgment, or in any other way to avoid it: for, like God, this judgment is omnipresent, and manifests in our world in many different forms. The very darkness in which we dwell is one form of God’s judgment, which may be seen in terms of absence or presence.
Absence is the normal way we think of darkness: it is what happens when there is no light. The darkness of our lives and our world is the darkness of the absence of God. Now, of course the omnipresent God is not gone; but He is also fundamentally not with us in the way He once was, in the way we still long for. He does not walk in the garden in the cool of the day calling out to us, He does not go out in front of us in the pillar of fire. And this absence is a judgment: God has withdrawn from His people and His creation to the extent that He has as judgment for our sin.
But those of us who have a sense of the supernatural (and I would venture to say that this is many more of us than we think) have also experienced darkness to be a presence, to be a malevolent and malignant force that attacks us at the very center of our being. This is, first and foremost, the darkness of our own sinful nature and of our actual sins; but it is also the sinful attacks of demonic forces that long to rip us away from the light of God. In this sense, we do not just dwell in darkness, we are also besieged by it, from within and without. This too is a judgment of God, for God gives us over to our sinful desires, and allows us to be exposed to demonic forces as judgment for our rebellion. In Him we knew true safety; when we flee Him, we are rightly exposed to the greatest of perils.
Wonderful Dawn: The Advent of Mercy
But Christ teaches us where to find light: it blooms from within the darkness. At the darkest point in Israel’s history, in the midst of a deep famine of hearing the word of the Lord, an angel comes to a young virgin. But when his radiant presence departs, he leaves her in the dark, and exposed to a greater darkness of societal shame and mocking. Light Himself has been conceived in her, but He hides in deepest darkness in the hidden places of the virgin’s womb: the Word of life is silent, confined to a place where speech cannot exist because there is no air. And, more deeply and mysteriously, He comes forth only to tread a steady path downward, into greatest darkness: suffering, rejection, the cross, the grave. Perhaps even this is not darkness enough; perhaps He seeks the deepest darkness of all, the depths of Hell.
But the point of all of this is the moment of reversal. At the darkest place in all of existence, the place furthest from the Father of Lights, the Son of Light explodes into supernova, flooding all of creation with His light. The resurrection is an unexpected reversal of darkness, and it is there that in the truest sense light shines in the dark.
Here divine simplicity intervenes again. For while simplicity means that God’s judgment is not other than God, it also means that God’s judgment must be good, for God is good. Even more shockingly, God’s judgment is not something different from God’s mercy, and so in every judgment we are also looking for mercy. Those of us who fall on our faces in despair at the realization of the deep and disgusting nature of our sin see that God’s mercy is severe. And yet, as we walk the path of contrition, penance, and restoration, we also see that God’s judgment is merciful. Ours is the prayer of Psalm 119:
You have dealt well with your servant, O Lord, according to your word.
Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe in your commandments. Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.
You are good and do good; teach me your statutes.
The insolent smear me with lies, but with my whole heart I keep your precepts; their heart is unfeeling like fat, but I delight in your law.
It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.
The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces. (Psalm 119:65-72, ESV, emphasis added).
“It is good that I was afflicted.” These words seem like paradox to the unredeemed, or to the Christian who has forgotten the wonder of her salvation; but to those brought low by their own iniquity, these words are so self-evidently true as to be nearly tautological.
We dwell in darkness, and we long for light. We sit in judgment and cry out for mercy. But it is a mistake to think that we shall find mercy anywhere other than in the depths of judgment.
Our task during Advent is to abide in God’s judgment until we see it transformed into mercy—until we recognize that His judgment was, in reality, always mercy. And the darkness where we sat was always the dazzling light of His presence, which our eyes had grown too weak to see and so were blinded by. And the dark assaults of the enemy and our own desires were always a ray of light offering a path out of the darkness that filled our eyes, a path back to the one who offers to deliver us from our enemies within and without.
Divine judgment must be severe, for it must be as deep as mercy is. This is necessary because they are not truly different, and so the one cannot be lesser than the other. If we want God’s great mercy, we must endure God’s terrible judgment. The transformation of darkness into light is, in a sense, subjective: it is a change not in the world, but in our perception. But it is of course still real, for what is in the mind is no less real than what is outside of it. And so there is a real transition of the world from dark to light, a real illumination, a real dawn of the Sun of Righteousness.
This becomes, for the believer, a vocation: we are not just about the work of carrying a candle into the darkness, we are also tasked with confronting darkness and revealing its true character. When we speak God’s word of judgment on darkness, we name it truly, and as its inner truth is revealed, we see that the word of judgment is also the word of mercy. In this way, to borrow Aslan’s magnificent phrase, “Death itself […] starts working backwards.” Our task, in short, is not only to illuminate the darkness, but to transform darkness into light.
And so, as we look forward to the commemoration of the coming of the Savior, and as we await his second coming in glory, let us take seriously the darkness around and within us. Let us gaze intently and unflinchingly upon it: not to give it more power and certainly not to worship it, but because we know that no darkness is absolute, that if we gaze with faith and hope, and not a little love, we will see the darkness give way to the light of life. This light is our wonder, and the least glimpse of it will expand to fill our souls, and through us, the darkened world around us.
 C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
The featured image, “Lamplight at Glen Eyrie”, is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith.
It is used with her glad permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Junius Johnson is a scholar in the fields of historical and philosophical theology, and has published four books in those areas. He is also a lover of story, passionate about beauty and the imagination, a seeker of wonder, a musician, and a deeply flawed sinner daily leaning on the grace of God in Christ. A lover of the Middle Ages, he especially loves to be transported to other worlds via fantasy, science fiction, and young adult literature.