Monday, December 18, 2017

Genocide - Advent Meditation

(This is part of a set of daily Advent meditations I'll be posting. They're going up a day early so that you can use them, if you wish, for private reflection in this season of anticipation and preparation.)

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out of Egypt I called my son." Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.
-Matthew 2:13-16

Nobody puts dead infants in their nativity scene. You're probably scandalized by the very suggestion. But in the Bible they're right there, staining the starlit streets of Jerusalem red and rending the silent night with mothers' cries.

People often struggle with these “hard stories” in the Bible. Why are they here? What is Herod's slaughter of the infants doing in our happy little manger scene?

This is because we don't understand what the Bible is for.

There is this pervasive idea, drilled into us from childhood through flannelgraphs and video programs, that the Bible is basically a collection of morality tales. Like Aesop's fables, where Little Red Riding Hood teaches us not to talk to strangers and the Three Little Pigs shill for the brick industry. We view Bible characters as moral examples. We think we should be like, say, Abraham.
But we really shouldn't. Abraham does a lot of bad stuff in his life. There are certain ways the Bible presents Abraham as an example – primarily in the few key moments when he chose to have faith in God even though it was incredibly costly – but Abraham is painted as a man of faith and a coward and sometimes cruel. As a real and sinful human being, not a talking fox or steadfast tortoise.

If not morality tales, we sometimes think instead that the Bible is full of inspiring stories. Happy tales of triumph over adversity, chicken soup for the Christian soul. But again, that just isn't what you actually find in it. There's this whole book of Job where Job has every imaginable horror inflicted on him, and he demands that God come and explain why his suffering is happening, and while God does appear, he refuses to explain it. Job doesn't get an answer. None of which gives me a spring in my step after I read it.

The Bible is not a set of moral examples or inspiring stories. If you treat it that way, you'll miss the point, and probably end up very confused.

Two years ago, my wife was diagnosed with a serious form of cancer. In the face of that, the doctor didn't sit us down and tell us a fairy tale about animals. Neither did he give us some platitudes about how we'll certainly beat it. Instead, he gave us a medical explanation of what was happening, some statistics about outcomes, and what our treatment options were.

This world is broken. The Bible very honestly tells the truth about this broken world. It is full of stories of sin and failure and defeat and injustice. All of which is because, in Scripture, this world has a cancer. Part of what this book is meant to do is offer us the diagnosis. To tell us the truth of our condition.

The good news of this story is not that nothing bad ever happened in Bethlehem. What hope is there in that? The good news of this story is that Jesus is born into the very same mess we know. God didn't come into the world on a golden bed with a silver spoon. He was born a fugitive, smack dab in the middle of the heartbreak. There was blood at His birth and blood in His hometown and blood, ultimately, that He bled. This bloody world doesn't need a fable or a pick-me-up. This world needs salvation. The cancer needs surgery. That is what God has come to bring: a deadly diagnosis, and a hard but true cure.

It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

-Denise Levertov, On the Mystery of the Incarnation

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