Advent on The Road

Advent is often associated with hope. That seems to be a common answer to why many churches now use blue paraments and vestments during Advent, rather than the older violet paraments and vestments. Lent, with which we also associate violet paraments, seems darker and more somber, and (I suspect) we don’t want that somber note infecting our Christmas preparation. (As I wrote last week, even in churches Advent has become preparation-for-Christmas time rather than being focused on preparation for the Last Day.)

In The Road (2009; streaming on MUBI and Freevee Amazon), an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel by the same name, there is not much hope to be had. But it feels distinctly Adventual. The words and promises and hopes of Advent are not given in some other world, in a happy world where there is no death, or difficulty, or suffering, or danger. Nor are they heard in the world of ubiquitous advertising, where everyone is smiling and happy and never alone. Even when someone is alone briefly, we know that by the end of the 30-second spot someone will show up with a gift, or a cup of tea, or the decorations necessary to get into the “Christmas spirit.”

In The Road, there is the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and they are walking on the eponymous road toward a southern coast, where they hope to find—well, something. And as long as they are on the road, their goal overrides their experiences, including their grief and the ever-present threat of those who may want to steal, kill, destroy, and perhaps even eat them. They live in a world that is “after,” both after the loss of the Woman (Charlize Theron) who was both wife and mother, as well as after some catastrophic event that has made the earth desolate and gray.  

The movie hits the usual post-apocalyptic notes: struggling to find food and shelter, bad people taking advantage of the situation, not knowing whom to trust, thinking that death might be better than living in this kind of world. The Woman, in fact, argues that they should commit suicide, saying, “Other families are doing it.” Eventually, she walks off into the darkness. The Man, even though he saves two bullets in his revolver for himself and the Boy, should things get to an ultimately dire point, still can’t quite bring himself to fully despair.

There are a few semi-bright moments in the unrelenting grayscale: the Man and the Boy find an abandoned underground shelter stocked with food and supplies. The Boy is more optimistic about people, wanting to help them, or desiring to make human connection. However, the Man does not trust anyone, and does not want to help anyone because it would mean less for them.

The coast, when they finally reach it, is no different from any other place they’ve been. The earthquakes continue; the trees keep falling; and the water is gray, rather than blue. It is there that the Man’s increasing sickness overcomes him, and the Boy is left alone to face the world. And then another man (Guy Pearce) appears, whom the Boy holds at gunpoint until he can find out if the man is “one of the good guys” who “carries the fire.” Earlier the Boy had asked his father whether they were still the good guys, and whether they always would be. Are they going to let the way of the world get inside them, and turn them into something else—cannibals or worse?

At the heart of the film is the father-son relationship, as the Man tries to prepare the Boy for the Man’s eventual death. Any father who loves his children worries about what he is teaching and leaving for his children. The post-apocalyptic setting allows that worry to be amplified and heightened. What do I want to leave for my children, even if the world is not as desolate as the one in The Road? McCarthy’s worlds are always bleak and even nihilistic. But he is also searching for the thinnest threads of hope. What will cause a person to continue living, in the midst of such a world? The Man asks the Old Man (an excellent Robert Duvall, who makes the most of his limited screen time) whether he ever wishes he would die. The Old Man says, “No. It’s foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these.” It’s a luxury to die in times like these (which is not an un-Biblical notion; see The Apocalypse 9:6). And blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, also in times like these.

In the end, it is another family who becomes a consolation to the Boy in the midst of a world that remains the same. In fact, as the mother (Molly Parker) tells the Boy, they have been following and keeping an eye on them for a while: the Boy saw the son in a window; there was a dog sniffing around the underground shelter. In those moments, the Man sensed threats, and so they always left where they were, even if it seemed relatively safe. Now the Boy discovers that the threat was actually his deliverance.

Perhaps, in this Advent world, that can work as an analogy for the hidden activity of God. Sinners often feel the work of God as a threat to them and to their autonomy (which, of course, it is). What they do not realize apart from the Holy Spirit’s revelation is that the One whom we experience as a threat is actually also our deliverance. The independence that we believe to be freedom is actually slavery to fear. The salvation that we worry will be slavery is actually freedom from fear, as God’s perfect love in Christ casts out fear. The world itself hasn’t changed (yet), but while we travel through it, the fire is still being carried.

That metaphor is also in both the novel and film of another of McCarthy’s works, No Country for Old Men. At the end, Sheriff Bell has a dream about his father passing him on horseback on a dark road. “It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin’. Never said nothin’ goin’ by. He just rode on past… and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. ‘Bout the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.”

Whether McCarthy would say so or not, that fire in the darkness and the cold is the Light of the world. Jesus will never seem like much in a cold world getting colder, but the word and promise is all we have. Our salvation cannot be found in this world itself. As far as we are concerned, it is a closed system. But there is an inexplicable hope found wherever the family of God gathers around the little fire of words and holy gifts, waiting for the fulfillment of a promise. It is a peace that literally surpasses our rational understanding. While McCarthy and the film do not (and are perhaps unable to) show how and where the Road ends, Advent holds out such a hope to such people as us, even in a world such as this.