Gretchen E. Ziegenhals: Advent 2020 -- leaning into divine mystery

"Annunciation," a painting by Patricia Brintle. Photo courtesy of the artist

The right plot and cast of characters can help prepare us for a holy season of watching and waiting, writes a managing director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

When I was a girl, I rode my bike a mile to the Oak Park-River Forest Library just west of Chicago. After filling my basket with the maximum 10 books, I would pedal precariously back home to devour them.

This fall, my online library cart, like that bicycle basket, is full. Now it’s with mystery novels, and I’m discovering, to my surprise, what they can teach me about the divine mystery of Advent.

My recent obsession is Louise Penny’s Gamache series, stories about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec, his team of misfit detectives, and his stops at the bistro in the village of Three Pines for bowls of steaming coffee and croissants with thick slices of ham, melting brie and arugula.

Gamache is an excellent leader and a fine person -- respectful, observant, kind and trustworthy -- and he always solves the murder by the last chapter.

I hadn’t read many mysteries since my Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys days, but over the long, difficult months of 2020, I’ve craved tidy solutions to wicked problems, and I’ve longed for leaders who are patient and wise, have moral fiber, and work tirelessly for justice.

Bibliotherapists would say I am reading what I most need right now. Reading books that are personally relevant can be a “prescription” for healing what ails us, explain advocates of bibliotherapy -- an idea, they note, that dates back to Plato.

In our increasingly violent and polarized world, it makes sense that I am seeking out mysteries with orderly endings and compassionate detectives. Basically, I want Gamache to solve all our current problems!

But as a person of faith, I know that part of what is required of me is to sit with mystery, with the questions, with the messiness, and to lean into the places where I most need answers.

In fact, the approaching Advent season is about learning to wait, to listen, to ponder the divine mystery of the virgin birth and the incarnation.

We all need lessons in learning to wait right now. My friends and I fret: How will the election results ultimately play out? When will we have a vaccine for COVID-19? When will the fires cease? When will we achieve justice for our Black and brown sisters and brothers who suffer from white supremacy and increasing violence? Will we ever again hug our 90-something parents or see our loved ones who live a plane ride away?

These ongoing mysteries are exhausting and sometimes deadly.

But here, my mystery novels may actually be helpful. Christian writer Marilyn McEntyre says that when she reads a good book, she asks herself two questions: “What does it invite me to do?” and “What does it require of me?”

I’ve noticed that before their tidy endings, good mystery novels actually invite us to sit for a few hundred pages with the ambiguity, the not-knowing. They teach us to be patient. They require us to be good detectives -- to listen well, to notice details, to be persistent, to not expect easy solutions, to anticipate surprise.

Reading a good mystery can provide a kind of formation that is similar to Advent.

In both, we are invited to lean into the twisting plotline and the surprise ending. In both, we entertain awe and wonder and humility. In Advent, we sit with the mystery of a poor, infant Savior of the world and the mystery of how “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14 NRSV).

The divine mystery doesn’t make sense -- even Gamache wouldn’t be able to solve this case. When we watch, wait, listen and pay attention during Advent, we are giving up our easy certainty, our need for answers that are usually only a Google click away.

One key to Gamache’s success is his ability to step back from his own certainty. He takes young detectives under his wing and teaches them, but he always chooses the “misfits,” the “losers” in the eyes of the Surete, those at the end of the road, who have failed the Surete entrance tests or are relegated to jobs in basement offices.

As Gamache mentors his unruly “disciples” (to the disdain of his fellow senior colleagues), he explains the four statements that lead to wisdom: “I don’t know. I need help. I’m sorry. I was wrong.” All statements that erode certainty.

The chief inspector knows that to solve a case, a good detective must go back and look again, realize and admit when she is wrong, and understand that the obvious answer might not be the correct one.

So Advent helps us practice, year after year (will we ever get it right?), letting go of our certainties. Advent waiting entails letting go of our political posturing, our fundamentalisms and finger pointing, our hashtags and hubris. Rather, it teaches us to watch quietly, wait expectantly and prepare to seek the Christ child in humble places like a stable.

One of the things that both Scripture and the world teach us, explains McEntyre, is that “our search for truth, if we are faithful to it, will lead us to the threshold of mystery where the appetite for certainty gives way to humility and awe.”

I will continue to enjoy online checkout and curbside pickup of my mystery series at my beloved public library. But I will also continue to believe that we are called this Advent 2020 to live the questions and embrace a divine mystery that cannot be reasoned out or neatly resolved.

This does not mean we can’t be good detectives. We can watch for the star, stay awake, listen for good news, search for the child, ask key questions and work tirelessly for justice. Active Advent waiting. It just might mean we don’t solve the mystery in 349 pages.