Thursday, December 20, 2012

What Newtown Taught Us About Advent

I admit, I feel a bit uneasy using the recent tragedy in Newtown, CT as fodder for my sub-par blog, because, for obvious reasons, this tragedy is abhorrent on an entirely different level.  Nobody appreciates the slaughter of other human beings, but the massacre of innocent children is nothing short of abominable.  If this is our reality, a reality in which children are executed in their classrooms, I vehemently reject it.  This is not the reality for me, no thank you.  Such an abomination causes even the most hardened skeptic to purse his lips and whisper, "Evil..."  However, because we the unhappy survivors left to cope are, invariably, human, we ask the question all human ask: Why?  Human beings seek the light of understanding, even in the darkest of horrors such as what unleashed upon this quiet school.  We seek meaning to this meaningless suffering, and in that, there is a lesson to be learned.

If ever there were a good argument to spite God with, it would be this:  How could an all-knowing, all-powerful, good, and loving God allow such evils as Newtown to happen?  You would think (and you'd be right to think so) that any truly good, able, and knowing person would stop Adam Lanza from pulling the trigger that morning; that his mother, the staff and students in Sandy Hook, and himself would still be alive had somebody intervened.  Who better than the Almighty himself, who is praised as omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, and completely good, to swoop down from the High Heavens and stopped the madness before it ever began.  In fact, why wouldn't he do so in the case of every evil ever?  If God exists and God is good, why are we so brutally confronted with the horrible reality of evil?

Forgive me for being a bit philosophical in this next part.  To understand better the problem of Evil, we must ask what evil is.  Evil is not a thing, but the absence of a thing.  Just as darkness is the absence of light and cold the absence of heat, evil is the absence of what ought to be.  We were so disgusted and repulsed by Newtown because we know, in the depths of our souls, children ought to be safe and innocent.  It ought to be that no child is executed in the corridors of their school, and when cold harsh reality strikes us with the news that what ought to be is not so, we feel the cold, dark chill of Evil.  

Where does evil come from then?  Where did reality split from what ought to be to what, unfortunately, is?  Put simply, choice.  The power to choose makes derivation from the right path possible.  Human beings have the power of Will, we can choose Good or not Good (Evil).  Rock have no choice.  A rock cannot stop behaving as a rock should.  That's why we cannot seriously accuse it of being a bad rock, its just a rock.  Humans do, and because of it, we are capable of magnificent good or horrifying evil.  A person, through the power of choice, can be Gandhi or can bring a nation to its knees in horror.  Newtown showed us, as Virginia Tech, Columbine, Sudan, Rwanda, the Holocaust, and so much more have showed us, that we live in a reality in which people do choose evil.  The repulsive reality we live in is one which resulted from our choice.  

So where does our suspiciously silent God lie in all of this madness we call "reality"?  I suppose we would prefer to see a Superman-like God, one who in unmatched power and total nobility swoops in and stops evil before it happens.  We would want a God in unparalleled strength, with Heavenly armies pouring from the skies and laying waste to all the evil men and women.  Indeed, if God were good, he'd crush the power of sin and darkness with resplendent glory.  Unfortunately, there was no angelic garrison barring the doors of Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Nor did St. Michael swoop from the clouds and put Lanza to the sword before opened fire.  No, cold, harsh, terrible reality took place in Newtown and God and his great might were nowhere to be found.

Or were they?  We hunger for the great and powerful God to come and destroy our violent world in even greater violence, and we forget that we may be looking in the wrong places.  We look for God in a throne, but not in a manger.  We seek to find him with glittering crown, but don't think to see him wreathed in thorns.    We expect God to fight evil, and rightly so, but we expect him to do so oppressively, defeating power with greater power, crushing violence with greater violence.  This is because all we know in this world is the threat of power, violence, and oppression.  However, fighting evil with such tools is merely fighting it on its own terms, something God has little interest in doing.  Violence is not defeated violently, nor is evil toppled in destruction.  Evil, that which brings violence to our schools and destruction to our homes, is defeated from within by the light of Goodness, which is what brings me to Advent.  In Advent, we draw our focus to the coming of Christ, an event swimming in peculiarity.  The nativity scene might be cute and idyllic to us, but in reality, it is Earth shattering.  Think of the famous Advent hymn, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel".  While it might be pleasant and Christmas-y for us, this song is a cry for help, wrought in bitter tears.  This ancient song speaks to exactly what we've been talking about, our desperate cry for God's intervention in a world held captive in evil.  Advent is not just about decking the halls in preparation for Christmas.  It is a season to remind us of this very deep yearning of our very broken hearts:  We need God with us.  Our hearts shattered and bound in in an evil world, we need God, in his goodness and might, to free us from this world, and how peculiar is the way he chose. 

Christ, God Incarnate, came, not as a conquering hero, but as a baby.  He did not bind the forces of evil, but  lay bound in swaddling clothes, not on golden throne but in a manger, the trough from which the animals would eat.  Here is our conquering God, on glorious campaign against evil, who from the very beginning of his assault on the powers that be is completely undermining them.  Here is a God who, at the pinnacle of his war march on evil, does not conquer with great oppression but in total surrender.  Humanity asks for a conquering hero and we are given one even better:  A God like ourselves, born, raised, and died in suffering and evil.  God is no stranger to suffering and evil, and rather than crushing it in force he juxtaposes himself in the midst of it all.  When we see tragedy like Newtown, we rightfully ask "Where were you God?"  However, God has given us an answer in Christ crucified; he was not indifferently aloof, but at home in the midst of the suffering, a God who knows how incredibly hard it is to be human.

When we see unspeakable horror and experience despair from tragedies like Newtown, they ought to remind us of Advent, of our world long captive to the power of evil, desperately yearning for God with us.  We ought to think of Christ, not as one who conquers in great gusto but one who has the audacity to enter into the experience of suffering and evil in our lives.  Here is our answer to Evil's problem, Christ's conquest of it from its very heart.  Like Frodo toppling Mordor from within, Christ enters into our world of suffering and actively undermines it from within.  For the remainder of this Advent, we ought to think about this, about our desperate cry for a savior and the revolutionary response we get in the infant Jesus.  We ought to think about this child, bound helpless in a manger, yet set out to conquer the universe, not in strength but in surrender.  Here is the paradox of Christianity, here is the heart of our bold and fantastic faith, here lies your salvation. 

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