Saturday, December 29, 2012

What I Learned About Love From Cockroaches (A Christmas Story)

I am often told by people that call themselves "spiritual" that Christianity is wrong because it associates fear with God. And while this is an understandable critique (especially for those who allow it to paralyze them), it is more than a little naive to regard fear as useless altogether. The world is a dangerous place and sometimes it is quite rational to be afraid of things. Cliffs, for example, should inspire a reasonable concern as to their whereabouts, lest one should find one's self falling over one. Hence, it should be abundantly clear that fear is not always and everywhere a bad thing. As a matter of fact, in the Old Testament we learn that "fear of the Lord" is the first stage of wisdom. Some may be inclined to dismiss such a "stifling" injunction in favor of John's more popular "God is love." But before we do so, let us first consider the value of each in their own right.

What "wisdom" could there possibly be in "fearing the Lord", some will ask? First of all, it should be noted that Scripture does not say that "fear of the Lord" has the last word on wisdom, only the first. In other words, fear is to be regarded as a necessary first step in the process of coming to know God and ourselves. It is the necessary recognition that God is God and we are not. For when someone or something is undeniably greater than you, common sense dictates that you acknowledge that fact. You don't have to like it- but you do have to deal with it. And if God is indeed all-powerful, then it is only rational to acknowledge that He holds all the cards, and we none. Call it humbling, call it a dictatorship if you like, but do not call it unreasonable for a man to tremble before so menacing a Force.

In Isaiah chapter 6, the prophet is caught up in a vision in which he finds himself standing before the throne of God. In the midst of this he exclaims: "Woe is me! For I am a doomed man; because I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people with unclean lips" Isaiah 6:5. If one of the greatest prophets in the Old Testament cannot stand in the presence of God without feeling as if his face is going to melt off (like the Nazi's in Raiders of the Lost Ark), then what chance do the rest of us have? Some might call it humility, others realism, but in either case it cannot be regarded as logically unsound to recognize one's vulnerability in such a position. It should also be pointed out that when people choose to humble themselves in Scripture, God tells them; "Be not afraid", but when they are patently full of themselves (e.g. the Pharisees) he tells them, in essence, 'Be afraid; be very afraid'.

Yet this is not an exhaustive explanation of Biblical fear. As suggested before, the New Testament introduces a new kind of divine trepidation, one that is even more terrifying than the former. The birth of Jesus Christ did not alter the definition of fear, but it did reveal a surprising new feature. Thanks to the Incarnation, fear now has the face of a child. It is easy enough to feel overwhelmed in the presence of a metaphysical giant, but who would have suspected this bizarre turn of events- the idea that men would come from east and west to fall prostrate before an infant child in the backwater of Bethlehem. It was revolutionary in the truest sense of the word. Everything that had previously been considered upside down, was now right side up. Indeed, a new order had been established, a kingdom wherein powerlessness turns out to be mightier than power, and where God's foolishness turns out to be wiser than the wisdom of men. But the foolishness of God is vindicated by His works. For what merit would it have been if God had simply crushed humanity with his divine foot? Such a victory would have been about as impressive as Blake Griffin dunking over a five year old. What God did instead is the very definition of paradox- he won a great victory because he found a way to triumph even in defeat.

Before I married my wife I was a bit squeamish about cockroaches- especially the idea that one might be crawling over me in the middle of the night. Shortly after our wedding, I was awakened one night by a blood-curdling scream. I honestly thought someone had died. I leapt out of the bed and quickly discovered the horrible menace that had provoked her. She was traumatized because a sizeable cockroach had just crawled across her face and had disappeared somewhere underneath the covers. On that day I ceased to be afraid of cockroaches, and instead developed an even greater fear... fear of my wife's fear of cockroaches. To put it plainly, when one finds themselves sincerely in love, their greatest concern is not their own peace of mind, but rather that of their beloved. Granted, I also feared that those roaches might disturb my domestic bliss, but that nevertheless doesn't diminish the fact that love inexorably changes the locus of one's concern.

The cross is a prime example of how love tends outward. Jesus was not the only one crucified on Good Friday. Apart from the two thieves, there were two others who were pierced through as a result of this event. Indeed, such is the nature of perfect love, that the greatest punishment is not to suffer personal malady. Rather, the greatest punishment is to watch the flesh of your flesh and bone of your bones in Godforsaken agony. Hence, a trinity of perfect love was crucified that day: God the Father, God the Son, and the Mother of Sorrows, Mary.

Which brings us back to the truth behind that "terrifying" child; that fundamental mark of God's revelation to humanity; that power even more intimidating than omnipotence. In the most unusual way, Christmas changes the significance and meaning of fear. Now when we tremble, it is not simply in the spirit of Isaiah before the throne of God, but rather with the awe and reverence of a mother who has just given birth to a child. And now when we cower our heads at the feet of some great mystery, we do not do it only in the spirit of Moses who begged to be shielded from the countenance of God, we do it with the fear of a father gazing into the face of his baby girl for the first time. Fear and love are now one in the Incarnation, and though heaven and earth may pass away, this will not. I cannot say exactly what caused Isaiah to despair in the presence of God, but the story of the Nativity convinces me that it involves more than a case of divine intimidation. Something tells me that the reason that those six-winged seraphs shielded their eyes from the glory of God, has much less to do with His overwhelming omnipotence, and everything to do with His unbearable beauty. And so we must marvel at so great a Christmas mystery, a dread that comes not principally from the fear of facing God, but from the fear of losing Him.