What we see is in part determined by the glasses we have been conditioned to wear. Worldwide, 2017 has seen people looking for saviours in a context of insecurity, growing inequity, unfulfilled ambition, and fear of those who are different. In this context US voters mistook Donald Trump for a saviour. The self serving political establishment was a swamp needing to be “drained”. Trump would do this and all would be well again. Sadly what was not observed was a very flawed, probably psychologically unbalanced, human being; more self serving than ‘the swamp’ it was hoped he would replace. The desperate longing for a very different political reality blinded the eye (apparently still does) of GOP voters to the flaws. Australia is not immune to a similar phenomena, a phenomena now characterising democracies the world over.
2000 years ago the world was not very different. Sure, we have made huge technological gains and the volume of information at our disposal doubles every decade or so. But human nature has not changed much. Fear dominates the lives of many – some with very good reason, many out of their own paranoia. Those in power hold on to their positions with every fibre at their disposal. The wealthy seek to expand their wealth at the expense of the poor. The needy are expendable.
In this context a Saviour was, and is, longed for. What credentials would such a person possess to be convincing? Again, it depends who is doing the looking! Those in authority were not looking (are not looking) for a saviour, let alone a messiah, such a person would shake the status quo and be a threat. Jesus met opposition from religious and civilian leadership alike: High Priests and the ruling class amongst Pharisees and Sadducees; Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas the client tetrarch of Galilee and Pontius Pilate the Roman Governor of Judaea, all of them found the very thought of a champion of the people very threatening. The last thing any of them wanted was a further threat to their authority and income raising capacity amongst the people.
Those who longed for political and religious autonomy were looking with conviction to a saviour who bore the hallmarks of religious and military leadership, someone strong enough to stand up to the ‘powers and authorities’ of the day. Jesus had these ambitions and hopes laid on him. That he turned out not to be this person, was a source of angry grievance. The religious right the world over still falsely lay this burden on Jesus, voting in overwhelming numbers for Trump in the US, Netanyahu in Israel, and Cori Bernardi, Malcolm Roberts and the Liberal rump in Australia.
Those who came looking 2000 years ago sans agenda, except the pursuit of further wisdom and knowledge, were the wise men from the east as recorded by Matthew. The wise sought, and still seek, truth that enlightens every moment and every place, but which also transcends every place and all time. These ‘magi’ seem unfazed by the ‘ordinariness’ of what they found. A baby, a stable, a family about to become refugees: they encountered vulnerability. What specifically they made of Jesus we are not told. What are we to make of him? If this is ‘truly’ God, if this is the divine nature and a priori the appropriate nature of humanity - would it be better that we did not know? It appears we would prefer not, for while the secular world considers such insight to be ridiculous, much language emanating from Christian hymnody not to mention its pulpits contradicts this revelation. Adjectives such as almighty, lord, king etc tend to predominate without being wrapped in the swaddling cloth of vulnerability, humility and service.
Truth about God is of course irrelevant if God does not exist - as a growing number of Australians contend. That those who do believe often seem to wrap the Christ child in a preconceived idea of what God should be like is even more serious, for it gives the first group a reason, if one should be required, for their disbelief. But what if both are wrong, both those who project their preconceived idea of what God should be like, after their own image, and those who contend this is all rubbish? What if the wisdom or insight that the magi were seeking is equally truth about the world and life itself as it is about divinity? For surely any truth about God has to be equally truth about the world, or it is not truth at all?
If insight into a genuine ground for hope and a strategy for peace is to be found in this nativity scene, then Bethlehem certainly deserves another look.
It is clear that the world at large is both tired and deaf to theological dogmatics, or canon law, however elegantly argued. We know Catholics and Protestants have differences as do Shia and Sunni Muslims, but we rightly care little about those differences. What we are more interested in are the values and priorities that are shared, qualities or characteristics that might be good news to the world. The world longs for truth about itself and therefore insight into the identity of a saviour, should such be even remotely a possibility.
That is why we should return to the magi. If the truth they discovered about God and the world was vulnerability and this vulnerability is, ironically, the world’s chief source of hope, then we are definitely looking in the wrong place if we are looking for a saviour in Donald Trump, or Kim Jong-un, or Vladimir Putin, or Benjamin Netanyahu, or company CEO’s on multi-million salaries or most rock stars. In the past we were looking in the right direction when we admired Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Junior or Rosa Parks. In more recent times we have been looking in the right direction when we have admired Rosie Batty, Jo Cox or Dean Smith. All of these people have brought about change and transformation through their vulnerability, humility and in Jo Cox’s case, sacrifice.
It is easy to be forlorn about the current state of the world and its paucity of leadership. It is equally depressing, even humiliating, to observe the Church in light of the recent report of the Royal Commission. But looking with the eyes of the magi there is no problem too great, no obstacle too immoveable, and no darkness that cannot be shattered by integrity, humility and a desire for the other’s good. The God revealed in the stable at Bethlehem gives the world a chance to see itself as it could be, reflected in a mirror. But let us not wait until another Mandela walks through the door of history, everyone of us can be that person, for all of us our weaknesses are potentially our strengths: from climate change to refugees we have it within our grasp to be agents of a more peaceful world, if we can but let go of the reins of power and allow the integrity of a vulnerable life to do its transformative thing.
A very blessed Christmas to all.