Advent and the Age of Gold

By Toby Coffman, Honors Humanities

In the ancient pagan cultures we study in the Humanities program there was an idea that before everything got so messed up on the planet there was an era called the Age of Gold. Here is how the Greek poet, Hesiod, explains this prelapsarian condition:

“A golden race of mortal men [existed] who lived in the time of Kronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil: miserable age rested not on them. . . The fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things.”

And here is the Roman poet Ovid sounding similar themes:

“In the beginning was the Golden Age, when men of their own accord, without threat of punishment, without laws, maintained good faith and did what was right. . .The earth itself, without compulsion, untouched by the hoe, unfurrowed by any share, produced all things spontaneously. . . It was a season of everlasting spring.”

It is not difficult to hear echoes of Eden in these descriptions. A bountiful earth, laden with fruit, untouched by sin. There is something in the human heart that cries out for such a world, that longs to return to such a state. Not for the first time in teaching the classics, this makes me think of C.S. Lewis’s line about the Christian story being “the myth made fact.”

Reflections from the Golden Age

I’ve been thinking about this Golden Age idea as we have entered into the season of Advent. Advent is a time of anticipation and remembrance. We remember the first coming of Christ, the whole glorious story of the incarnation, and we anticipate his second coming in glory to rule over all things. As Christians, we can look back with fondness at a Golden Age that passed all too quickly and a Golden Age that will come in God’s good time.

I have thought of the Golden Age, too, because of the way Christians have historically seized on the similarities between Golden Age mythology and Christian eschatology in the way we have talked about Christmas.

Here is one resonance: the figure of Saturn. Cronos in the Greek myths, the figure Saturn in Roman mythology was understood as a benevolent figure. The poet Macrobius describes his reign thus: “Saturn is said to have been so just that no one under him was a servant, nor did anyone have any private possessions, but all things were held in common and undivided, as if the inheritance of one belonged to all.” The Feast of Saturnalia, honoring the Sun God, ran from December 17-23 (over the winter solstice) and was celebrated with feasting, gift-giving, and role-reversals (masters served slaves). When searching for a day on which to commemorate the Son of God, it is no wonder that the ancient Christians saw fit to appropriate elements of this festival. We have feasting, gift-giving, and the ultimate role-reversal of the eternal God incarnating human form.

A Golden Age to Come

Another example of Christian and pagan resonance during this time: the belief that Christ’s incarnation was ushering in a return to the Age of Gold. Here, for instance, is the last verse of the Christmas hymn, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”:

For lo! The days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the Age of Gold.
When peace shall over all the earth
In ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song,
Which now the angels sing.

Because of the incarnation/advent/Christmas, the “ever-circling years” will bring back the “Age of Gold.” Everything will be made new. All things shall be well. Milton, in his Christmas poem “The Nativity Ode,” draws similar parallels:

For if such holy song,
Enwrap our fancy long
Time will run back and fetch the age of gold,
And speckl’d vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
And leprous sin will melt from earthly mold;
And Hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering Day.

Written into our understanding of Christmas is the magnitude of the event: that the world has been and one day will finally be redeemed. That the age of gold, lost and fouled with sin, will one day return in glory. The ancients intuited and dimly grasped what we understand with greater clarity and will one day understand in full. That which has been lost for now has not been lost forever. Time will run back and fetch the age of gold.

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