CAFE NOIR » Tales of an atheist, anarchist, wannabe filmmaker of sorts, and father of three lovable little beasties

“Tell us, Christ, when will you arrive?”

United bother Cezanne | Oleg Shuplyak

Gearing up for my annual pilgrimage to the Tenebrae service at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, and feeling in a Christian sort of mood. Here’s an excerpt from the work of one of my favorite Christian theologians, Peter Rollins. (I’m pretty sure he’s an atheist–does that still count?) All typos are my own:

There is an ancient story that speaks of a second coming of the Messiah. It is said that he arrived anonymously one dull Monday morning at the gates of a great city to go about his Father’s business.

There was much for him to do. While many years had passed since his last visit, the same suffering was present all around. Still there were the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. Still there were the outcasts, and still there were the righteous who pitied them, and the authorities who exploited them.

For a long time no one took any notice of this desert wanderer with his weather-beaten face and ragged, dusty clothes–this quiet man who spent his time living among the sick and unwanted. The great city labored on like a mammoth beast, ignorant of the one who dwelt within its bowels.

The story goes that the Messiah eventually decided to reveal his identity to a chosen few who had remained faithful to his teachings. These people met together in a tiny, unknown church on the outskirts of the city to pray and to serve the poor.

As the Messiah entered the modest sanctuary one Sunday morning, his eyes fell upon the tiny group huddled in the corner, each one praying and weeping for the day of the Lord. As they prayed, those who had gathered in the church slowly began to feel the gaze of Christ penetrate their souls. Silence began to descend within the circle as they realized who had entered their sacred home. For a time no one dared to speak. Then the leader of the group gathered her courage, approached Christ, fell at his feet, and cried, “We have waited so long for your return. For so many years we have waited patiently for you to come. Today, as with every other day, we prayed passionately for your arrival.”

Then she stood up and looked Christ in the eyes:

“Now that you are with us we have but one question.”

Christ listened, knowing already what it would be.

“Tell us, Christ, when will you arrive?”



This story was directly inspired by a short reflection from the enigmatic work of Maurice Blanchot in The Writing of the Disaster. So how should we approach this story? In many ways it questions our commonsense understanding of what it means for someone to be with us. We often think that desire arises insofar as what we desire is absent. But what if we have got this all wrong, at least in relation to God and other humans? What if we can long for the arrival of someone only when that person has turned up? What if we can desire only the one we are already in relationship with? What if the presence of the other is precisely that which makes us yearn for that person?

In order to grasp this possibility we must take a moment to imagine that we are single and are desiring a relationship with someone. We may, for example, desire a relationship because we are lonely or because we feel incomplete without another person. The point is that we are seeking a relationship with someone. We cannot at this point seek the arrival of a particular person, insomuch as we have not yet met a particular person to whom we are attracted. We desire someone, but that someone is no one in particular. This person is nothing more than an idea, an image that we have in our mind. Now imagine that one day we meet a person and begin to develop a relationship. At this point, our desire for someone is transformed into a desire for the person with whom we are developing a relationship. We no longer desire someone in abstraction, we desire a specific person. We could not have desired this person before we met them, because we did not know them.

When we meet our beloved we will often feel that we were always looking for that person, that we were always incomplete without them. However, this “always” must be understood as a retroactive creation, something that happens after the fact. The lover is the one whose heart proclaims, “I had no need of you until I met you, but now I know I always needed you.” Or alternatively, “I had no desire for you until I met you, and now I know that I have always desired you.”

The point here is that our desire is not satisfied by the arrival of our beloved but rather born there. But not only is it born there, the presence of our beloved sustains our desire. The reason for this relates to the fact that we only ever know our beloved in part, as if through a glass darkly. Their incoming testifies to a simultaneous withdrawal.

The television program Dr. Who may help us to understand this structure. In the series the doctor travels through time and space in a TARDIS. From the outside the TARDIS appears as a small box in the shape of a telephone booth. However, on the inside it has seemingly infinite proportions. In a similar way, is not the small, fragile exterior frame of our beloved not experienced as housing an interior world of infinite proportions? It is because of this that our encounter with someone does not equal some kind of full contact with them. People we have known all of our life will remain a mystery to us as much as they will remain a mystery to themselves. Indeed, it is often only as a relationship develops that one begins to realize the depth of mystery that the other person’s fragile physical frame houses. At the beginning of the relationship, one may often have the intoxicating feeling that one knows his or her partner intimately and completely. It can take many years to come to appreciate and respect the impenetrable mystery that our beloved really is.

Therefore, when the one we love arrives, we experience this person simultaneously as one who is still to come, not despite their presence but because of it. The presence of our beloved testifies to our beloved’s absence, to the fact that our beloved is also still distant from us. This understanding can help us appreciate ideas such as the kingdom of God being both now and not yet and of the revelation of Jesus always being a type of concealment.

The incoming of God as expressed in the incarnation represents a beautiful expression of this simultaneous revealing and withdrawal, for in the Incarnation the mystery of God is not dissipated but rather deepened. The mystery is not unmasked, but rather dwells with us, in our midst. The mystery is thus not overcome in the Incarnation but rather encountered there.

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