Odysseus and Advent
~ by Lauren Hartke ~
As a literature teacher, “What is your favorite book?” is a question that I ask my students in the first session of the year to break the ice. If I am to ask it of my students, I always need an answer of my own, in case they turn it around on me. When they do, I almost invariably answer Homer’s Odyssey. I revel in teaching the Odyssey every year. The mark of a true classic book – like a true classic movie – is its “re-watch value.” By this standard the Odyssey excels. Over half a dozen reads, and it still surprises me every time with fresh joys and insights.
One of those struck me on a day in early December. We were discussing book thirteen, when Odysseus finally reaches Ithaca. All is not well, and Athena informs him that he will need to go about disguised before he can take back his home. Not a problem. Athena has changed his appearance before. Throughout the story she changes the appearance of protagonists to make them handsome, tall, strong, and appealing to others. But this is different. Athena will disguise him as a beggar, and he will also need to “endure the abuse of men.” Instead of wanting to welcome Odysseus, people will take one look at him and turn him away. Instead of the King of Ithaca making a triumphant return, he must remain anonymous and become a beggar in his own house.
Now this would be difficult for anybody, but especially for Odysseus, who has a problem with pride. It has caused him and his ill-fated comrades incalculable hardship. It is his “fatal flaw.” Odysseus was proud to forego his identity when it suited his schemes, calling himself “Nobody” to outsmart the Cyclopes. But he could not remain anonymous and as a parting shot he had to announce that it was Odysseus of Ithaca who had blinded Polyphemus, thus sealing Poseidon’s curse. But he cannot do that if he has any hope of taking back Ithaca. Athena’s plan for his triumph depends on his ability to swallow his pride, be humbled into the form of a beggar, and accept ridicule and abuse by the suitors who have taken over his house. It is a beautiful contrast and a crucible of character development for this man of hubris.
Like most insights in teaching, the deeper truth behind this scene did not strike me until after class was over and the moment had passed: If it was difficult for Odysseus to swallow his pride and accept this temporary humility, imagine what a step down it was for Christ at his advent. The immortal Son of God, used to the glories of heaven, willingly humbling himself for years as a poor carpenter. He humbled himself and did not receive the royal welcome he so deserved (Philippians 2). In his ministry, he was “despised and rejected of men,” and “like one from whom men hide their faces” (Isaiah 53:3). Odysseus’ humility was forced, to serve the story and to purge his hubris. Christ’s condescension was entirely voluntary and totally for our sake. I did not expect to find advent reminders in Homer’s epic, but that makes the discovery all the more joyful. Odysseus does eventually reveal himself, and violently take back what is his. Christ’s “big reveal” is the Resurrection. While the peace at the end of the Odyssey is bloody and tenuous, the Prince of Peace secures us peace everlasting.