Reflections for the Twelve Days of Christmas 3
When Jesus said that the effect of his message would bring a sword of division between family members—and by implication, other groupings as well—he spoke truth.
The this-world effects of the movement that carried his message have, time and again, sparked just such divisions. Sometimes they have been Jesus-followers clashing with each other. The Christian witness to prophetic values has provoked social division and outright hostility to the messengers in every century. And, on occasion, total innocents have been caught in the backwash from the conflicts, or been the outright victims of those thinking they are serving God.
The Christmastide calendar plunges straight from angels and shepherds to the martyrdom of Stephen, takes a breath for the remembrance of John the “son of thunder” (who once wished fire from heaven to descend on a Samaritan village and was imprisoned in his old age), and takes up the theme of conflict again with the slaughter of the Bethlehem innocents on December 28. No breather the next day for the liturgically observant: December 29 remembers the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral by henchman of King Henry II—the fall-out from a falling-out of two former bosom buddies who found themselves at loggerheads over the border between church hierarchy and the crown.
All these are unanticipated consequences from the life of Jesus and the movement he began. Life is like that; there is no great good that happens in this world that does not have unintended consequences, sometimes very evil ones. As a young seminary student recovering from a rigid, black-and-white, good or evil moralistic background, my moral theology professor’s observation that all actions, both good and evil, have an unpredictable “spray effect” was a true word of wisdom. I have never forgotten the lesson. It illumined baffling moments in my own life where a word or deed meant for good had gone sadly awry, and shed light on so many results of historical events, especially those undertaken in the passion of idealism.
The fervently noble, reformist intentions of Prohibition resulted in a social disaster, making the law a joke among the majority of citizens, and opening the city gates to the rise of massive organized crime. When human beings go on all-out crusades against vice and evil the cure can become as bad as the crime. Jesus himself may well have seen this, for he tells us, mysteriously, "do not resist evil" (Matthew 5:3) and reveals his m.o. is to “bind” the Devil and rob his house, not seek to destroy him completely (Matthew 12:29).
And yet, in spite of Jesus’ apparent intention for non-violent divisions, leaving judgments up to God, his life, from the beginning, had a spray effect of violence, at least as the Story is told. No angel asked permission of the Bethlehemites for the heavenly king to be born in their obscure cave-stable; yet blood ran in the streets two years later as the tyrant king sought to eliminate any threat to his power. The crowds flocking to be near the miracle-worker Jesus were so thick on one occasion people “trampled one another” (Luke 12:1). Such crowd pandemonium caused the Pharisees to accuse Jesus of being possessed by the “Lord of the flies” (Luke 11:24-25). More division.
For every action, there is a reaction; and it is not always clear that the actor’s push is purely good and the reactor’s push-back wholly evil. Values clash, and motives are seldom simple. That’s life. Even hermits have to deal with the disagreements and divisions in their own minds.
"The bestial floor"
The message of Christmas—like the message of the Hebrew Bible as a whole—is that God is willing to mix it up with the whole messy business. The underlying, overarching love, wisdom, and goodness out of which the worlds are born chooses not to be aloof the ambiguities that arise in pursuing the Good.
The birth of the Babe of Bethlehem, that “uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor” as Yeats puts it in The Magi, manifests that the Divine is not divorced from the difficulties and ambiguities we face. And the Babe, indeed all of Scripture, promises that through all the mayhem that even the best actions and accomplishments can provoke, threads of grace are seeking to “work for good” and bring about unanticipated blessings. The Incarnation is into this mess, nothing less. Nor does the Divine seek to escape accountability for its own actions as it participates in the planetary mayhem.
A great spiritual teacher once suggested to me that one of the many sins of humanity that Jesus bore to the cross was the one caused by the spray effect of his birth—the slaughter of the Bethlehem infants.
Whatever else that might mean, I think it shows that their wounds—all wounds—become his. Which is to say the wounds of our inevitable divisions, conflicts and hatreds are carried in the heart of God, who like us, has regrets.
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