In this Advent season I imagine what it would be like to be Mary and Joseph, with long days and nights on the road to Bethlehem where the Divine Child would be born to them. Both of them know who and what this Child is, and surely both must experience long periods of silence in which they ponder their worthiness and ability to answer such a profound call.
I have thus found myself ruminating on my own backsliding and hypocrisy, all the ways I have failed to nurture the Christ Child within me. I remember the ways I have not served Love with as much truth, beauty, and justice as I might. I revisit so many ways I have missed the mark. Sometimes I give myself a pretty hard time about this sort of thing, yet over the years I have increasingly come to realize that it’s not very helpful, that it’s even harmful, to continually disparage and punish myself for being human. In my experience, the intolerance of our own humanity is intimately linked to our intolerance of humanity in general. I’ve also found lurking behind that intolerance is an irrational expectation that I, others, and life itself, should be “perfect” in some vaguely imagined way, a way that I think so many of our utopian myths try to portray.
Reflections like these have often put me in the position of seeing the human mind as a kind of dweller between worlds and perhaps a simultaneous denizen of both, which I will for convenience call the “ideal” and the “actual.” The ideal world is the one we envision as the way things “ought to be,” the Eden to which we would return, or the Heavenly Jerusalem that we would hasten to call down upon us. That world has no lack of compassion, kindness, beauty, creativity, and joy, and there is nothing to interfere with them. The actual world is this one we know through our senses, where all that ideal goodness seems to go hand in hand with selfishness, cruelty, ugliness, destruction, and pain. It may be that our laws and moral codes have arisen out of our consciousness of this dichotomy and with the aim of restraining and redirecting those negative principles so that the experience of life can more closely approach the ideal. Yet, despite all our laws and codes, the negative principles still assert themselves, and often more within our own hearts, minds, and behavior than within the natural world around us.
One of the things I find so fascinating about all of this is how quickly we can embrace the negative principles as justifiable when we perceive that someone or something else is interfering with the manifestation of my Eden! Living this way means being intolerant toward those I judge as intolerant, incompassionate toward those I judge as incompassionate, impatient toward those I judge as impatient, unforgiving toward those I judge as unforgiving, self-righteous toward those I judge as self-righteous, hostile toward those I judge as hostile, condescending toward those I judge as condescending, unfair toward those I judge as unfair, selfish toward those I judge as selfish, lazy toward those I judge as lazy, and so on. Attitudes and behaviors like these are often easily justifiable when living only according to the letter of our laws and moral codes. If someone else dares to act in a way that threatens my peace as I imagine I should experience it, then I feel justified in attacking their peace if not totally destroying it. You know what I mean – “peacekeeping force.” Ironically, embracing this attitude automatically robs both the other and me of peace even more!
So why do I do this? Is it that temporarily sacrificing the good in order to destroy what I judge as evil is not only acceptable but actually necessary? Or is it that behind all the arguments there is simply a lack of faith that good, that Love, is indeed stronger and that in the end all the sacrifices it asks of me are worthwhile?
In this season of Advent I see this spiritual struggle as one of the things, if not the very thing, that Jesus was born to address. According to the narrative of the Bible, it seems to be the chief spiritual dilemma of Israel at the time. Perhaps it is always at the core of the human experience. In any case, unlike some philosophers and preachers, Jesus doesn’t tell me to deny the reality of either the ideal world (Heaven) or the actual world (Earth, or simply “the world”) as a way to try escaping this struggle. In fact, at this moment I see this as the cross he says I take up if I am his follower. He urges me to live as though the dominion of Heaven were coming at any moment, and he teaches me to live in such a way as to make the ideal more present and active here and now. He was, in my clearest understanding, teaching me about a way of life, both internal and external, as a way to respond to this struggle.
What is that way of life? In short, it is loving God and our neighbors, who are God’s children here in the actual world.
Yet how should I love? How am I to know what is the most loving thing to do in any situation? Where am I to turn when the way is unclear? Jesus says to first seek the dominion of Heaven, the Ideal, by which I take him to mean I should first open my heart to the authority of divine inspiration, also called the Holy Spirit. Paul echoes this when he says:
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans. And the one who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. Romans 8:26-27
And yet I am not always able to clearly and accurately discern the call of the Spirit, so what then? In these times I can fall back on the example and teachings of Jesus. During his sermon on the mount, Jesus laid out some powerful examples of the fruits, the kinds of attitudes and behaviors, people bring forth when they are following the call of the Spirit and living in accordance with the will of God:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, …those who mourn, …the meek, …those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, …the merciful, …the pure in heart, …the peacemakers….
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighborand hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Matthew 5:3-9, 38-45
Paul later suggests these qualities as evidence of letting Love live more fully in and through us:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 1st Corinthians 13:4-7
If you are like me, deep down you know the truth of these teachings, yet you also realize how very hard they can be to actually apply. Trusting the Spirit, trusting Love, in other words really having faith in them, means subjecting myself to some huge risks here in this world. It means the possibility of losing all my comforts and luxuries, my liberties, maybe even the necessities for my very life in this world. After all, look at what happened to Jesus and to Paul. More recently, look at what happened to Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. It’s no wonder that anyone who truly lives this way is regarded by most of the world as a fool or a crazy person. It’s no wonder that I see Jesus looking directly into my eyes when he says, “Oh you of little faith….” (Matthew 8:26, 14:31, 16:8)
I’m thankful that God understands and forgives the weakness of my faith even more than I do. I’m thankful that a little over 2,000 years ago the world received an innocent Child who would grow to inspire us to love above all else. And I am thankful that this Child can be reborn in me over and over again, no matter how many times I betray him.