Penelope waiting


There may be no better Advent example than that of Homer’s Penelope, wife of Odysseus.

I’ve been haunted by the images of the [im-?]patient spouse waiting for her husband to return from war for months now, and when I thought of examples similar to Advent outside of the religious world, I was surprised I didn’t automatically default to Penelope. Our [simplified] romantic notions of the hero’s return to his family stem pretty much directly from the Odyssey.

And she, unlike the Church’s attempts at impatient meddling, waits with purpose, with defiance.

For those of you who may have forgotten the mythology portion of junior high English class or never got around to reading the Odyssey–or never saw the outstanding O Brother, Where Art Thou?–the Odyssey is the tale of Odysseus, who fought in the Trojan War and took 10 years to return home. In the meanwhile, his wife Penelope stayed home, refused numerous suitors, most with ulterior motives. Feminist critics have, I think rightly, reinterpreted Penelope from being merely the dutiful, loving wife to being a pillar of strength in a culture which expected her to remarry and move on.

It is the uncompromising nature of Penelope that stands in stark contrast to both the state of ancient Israel before the birth of Christ, as well as the decidedly mediocre state of the Christian church. She defies the suitors, those who would tell her to forget Odysseus. Her resistance is based on principle; in the absence of knowing her husband’s fate, she waits. The waiting is seared into cultural history in the now-classic pose: head resting on hand, legs crossed, staring into the sea.

The church’s waiting for her savior, on the other hand, is far more passive–limited cultural engagement or meaningful interaction, escapist in nature, legs anything but crossed. It waits not out of principle, but out of a bratty need to be justified for its generations of established social retardation. Further, as I suggested a few weeks ago at the outset of the Advent series, we Christians aren’t entirely sure for what exactly we’re waiting.

So let’s instead focus on Penelope and her waiting-as-defiance.

The prophetic voice in history–religious or otherwise–is necessarily counter-cultural. It manifests itself in varied ways, be it the Oracle of Delphi, Isaiah, Joseph Smith, Thecla or even in the advent–pardon the pun–of blues and jazz. All of the aforementioned, leaving alone the matter of whether or not they were legitimate, spoke in ways that often defied the societal flow. Penelope’s waiting was a giant middle finger to a culture which expected her to acquiesce to what her suitors expected from her, to give up on Odysseus and remarry and do what good widows do: turn the estate over to another man.

A few weeks makes sense. Months, too, even a few years make sense. Ten years, though, is extraordinary. We’re not talking about someone who is simply in love with her man, but someone who is existentially committed to settle for nothing less than the best, even if the best means never getting it and never settling for anything at all. With a clear sense of purpose, then, waiting is noble and failure to compromise admirable.

The advent, then, was never supposed to be a rescue, but a coronation: as commitment to a person is not the rejection of others but the affirmation of the one. To wait without purpose is to act without purpose, equally vain and self-destructive. Ennui with the e-brake on.

So while some amuse themselves in self-destructive ways–purposelessness is self-destruction–or dull their sensitivity to a world which has done so in kind, the church rushes about its business of self-importance in much the same way, failing to recognize that we are no different than the world from which we claim to be sanctified.

All the while, Penelope waits for a sail to broach the horizon. And so will I.

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