Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Reflections During the 12 Days: III. Christmas as Paradox

My mother (as I shared in the first of these meditations during the 12 Days of Christmas) never made sure and certain promises. “Promise us,” we’d say; she’d respond with “If I can...I’ll try...” and, most commonly, “We’ll see.....depends.”  Frustrating. 

The Bible, by contrast, is full of promises: the promise of the Land, an everlasting covenant with Israel through Moses and David, the promise of Israel’s return from exile and restoration, and repeated promises of “justice and peace forever” The promises come from heaven, but on the ground frustrations abound: returning exiles experience danger and scarcity, “forever” ends up being “for a while,” and justice is too often delayed. Promise and frustration finally find their focus in Messianic expectation. 

Christian Christmas itself embodies the tension between these promises and the frustrations about fulfillment. The Babe born to be king of Israel—if we take the angel’s message at face value*—dies on a Roman cross. What can a believer in the Promising God make out of this?

Escaping the Dilemma

There are a couple of easy ways out of this dilemma. You can chose the traditional “spiritual not earthly Messiah” option. Jesus changes hearts, not nations, forgives sin and only “puts down the mighty from their seats” in a psycho-spiritual way. The Messianic expectation used earthly metaphors to talk about interior realities.

Or you can choose the more modern way out: the “real” Jesus was a profound teacher who didn’t pretend to Messianic stature. The burning Messianic promise at the center of the New Testament arises from the mistaken assumptions of early disciples and later story-crafters.

I’d rather live in the discomfort of the paradox: the ever-tantalizing promise of God’s rule of justice, mercy, love, and “peace on earth” and the ever-recurrent reality of injustice, hard-heartedness, hatred, conflict that, again and again, frustrates its fulfillment. Even the biblical “minimalists” who see the Messianic claims as a distortion laid on Jesus believe his proclamation “The kingdom of God is at hand” comes from his own mouth.

Promise or Vision?

Which lands us squarely in what I call the paradox of messianic faith that is at the heart of Christianity: a just God who presides over an unjust world, yet promises the triumph of justice. From Job’s dung-hill to the martyrs under the heavenly altar the cry goes out, “How long, O Lord; how long?”

But what if the Promise actually comes to us as a vision of the possible from the heart of a God who really, really, wants to save humankind? Save us from our ominous self-destructive capacities. Save us and the planet from the destruction we bring to it, and, ultimately upon ourselves. What if the "promise" is a seed of yearning and hope planted in our very nature? As a lure to activate our own search for the "things that make for peace?"**

What if Jesus’ challenge to change our ways and believe are what this not-quite-a-promise vision depends on? What if humanity's only hope is rising to the challenge of this vision?

Next: God’s Uphill Struggle With Humanity

* Luke 1:32-33:  "...and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end."

** Luke 9:42

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