December 28th marked the feast of the Holy Innocents. It’s a feast day that sometimes gets a little lost in the aftermath of Christmas and the preparations for New Years. It remembers the massacre of infants in Bethlehem by King Herod the Great in his attempt to kill Jesus. (Matthew 2:16–18)It’s jarring to move from the joyful and expectant celebration of Christmas almost immediately into the slaughter of innocent children but wrapped in this paradox is an opportunity to see the nature of God.
The violence in Jesus’ day was nothing new. Remember when Moses was born over a thousand years before Jesus? Pharaoh had the male children of all the Hebrews killed. Just like today, people in the first-century experienced hardship and fear, anxiety, and hunger. It was precisely into this brokenness, into this darkness, that the incarnation of God came.
There’s a part of us that struggles to reconcile a world in which God comes yet violence persists. We want to believe that God will solve the damage we cause. I think it’s important for us to remember that God is not a tool that “fixes” our problems. God creates. God creates space, time, possibility, hope, love… God creates pathways to wholeness. We are invited to walk those paths. We are invited to heal broken relationships and plant seeds of mercy and grace. Why? Because our own healing depends on it. We must participate in our own salvation, otherwise there is no true conversion.
Part of the healing power of the 12-step program is found by doing the work of your own healing– with God’s help. Healing from addiction is about healing the relationship between the addict and their addiction. It is not about making the addiction “go away”.
Jesus’s birth did not make suffering go away. As Mary and Joseph rejoiced, countless other families mourned the death of their children at Herod’s hand. But, despite Herod’s horrific act, God opened yet another path for all of us. As always, God uses everything and wastes nothing. God will take the very brokenness we create, the pain we sow, the sorrow we experience and show us pathways to new life. We needn’t wait until we think we are worthy. We can receive the love of God regardless of our own failings. God does not interrupt the human condition, God perfects it.
We still live in a violent and turbulent world. At any given moment, the miracle and joy of birth is countered by devastation and death– and yet, God still comes, beckoning us into wholeness and showing us how to heal.
In the Second Sunday in Advent, we hear John the Baptist proclaim, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16-17 NRSV) This is a message we hear each year during Advent, and it made me think of two things: one, that Advent is not about preparing for the coming of the infant Jesus (although that is sometimes the prevailing image) but the coming of the eternal Christ as foretold by many prophets before, and two, that John summons the image of wheat and chaff, perhaps an unexpected image for this time of year.
There is a lot of imagery in the Bible around harvesting, pruning, and even refining metals like gold and silver. Our modern sensibilities may have lost some of the meaning of these manual tasks, but they have been very commonplace for much of human history, and it occurred to me that there is a type of violence in these acts. The harvester cuts down the harvest, ripping it away from the Earth. The pruner cuts away branches and fruit from the vine, and the refiner plunges fine metal into fire to melt away impurities. Even the simple act that John presents of removing chaff from wheat requires either hurling the wheat into the air or hitting it against a stone or the ground to knock the chaff away from the grain. In each of these metaphors these intense actions are necessary to bring the object to its most valuable and desirable purpose.
My own path towards healing and wholeness often comes with intense even sometimes traumatic moments or thoughts. Only something intentional and direct can knock that chaff from the wheat underneath. There is nothing inherently “wrong” with the chaff mind you, just as there is nothing inherently “wrong” with our shadow-selves. But unless we can move beyond the limiting measure of that shadow-self, allowing it to fall away like the chaff, we can never hope to become our fullest and truest selves– “the light of the world.”
And, just like the vine, or the precious metal, or the wheat, I cannot refine myself– by myself. I need God’s help. Please understand, I do not suggest that God wishes us to suffer or be hurt, but God waists nothing and includes everything in our journey to becoming whole and holy. What an important thing to remember as we prepare the way for Christ to enter into the world and into our hearts this season. God so loves you that God is always working to gather, refine, and perfect you into children of light. May you come to see your moments of challenge and struggle as an opportunity to be broken open, inviting God deeper.