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Advent and Suffering

This Advent season, I invite you to read through the birth account according to Matthew, without glossing over the darkness:
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years and under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”
This scene depicts unthinkable suffering—the violent spilling of innocent blood, the soul-rending screams of mothers’ unthinkable agony. It is a picture of the deepest human despair and the cruelest sort of tragic injustice. Jesus entered a world shrouded in the shadow of death, fraught with abusive power. It’s no surprise that Israelites of the time, harassed and war-weary (parallels to the current state of affairs come to mind), developed “reasonable expectations” of what the Messiah would be like. A successful candidate—a job description might have read—will be a grand, powerful ruler who will wipe out injustice, deliver undisputed dominion of the Promised Land and perform undeniable displays of might that will stun the world forevermore. This archetypal image of power lines up reasonably well today: Our “Avengers” include a man of iron, a raging green giant, and a sultry fighting seductress, according to this year’s blockbuster. The ancient Israelites’ power picture looks right to us, which is why we, like many of Jesus’ own generation, often miss the meaning of Advent. The child born in Bethlehem to an ordinary couple, on the margins of society, failed to make an instant splash. From a 30,000-foot surveillance satellite view, he is downright invisible. If we are prone to thinking from the top-down, it would be far easier if we didn’t have to labor through a messy story and use our freed will in seeking out the Savior. Couldn’t Almighty God come up with a more efficient solution to the problems of suffering and salvation—one that would have spared Herod’s victims; one that would spare billions of suffering souls throughout history unfathomable amounts of misery, destruction and destitution? Why does it often appear as if God sits back and allows heinous, senseless terrors to destroy and torture his creation? A few years ago I heard Professor Bart Ehrman debate N.T. Wright, theologian and Bishop of Durham, on the theological implications of the complexity and tragedy in we see in the world. Ehrman, a former pastor, is now the well-known atheist chair of the Religious Studies Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He accounts for his rejection of God based on the state of our world, full of atrocities and tragedies, and concludes that “There is no God. There is no justice.” For Ehrman, the equation doesn’t balance. Wright offered different angle. Acknowledging the plight of our fallen world, he pointed out a fact that is embodied in the nativity story: God does not just sweep in to intervene now and then, even if we wish sometimes that he would. He dignifies us with his presence, demanding that we bring our best thoughts and efforts to bear as his agents who help “sort things out” for the time being, in our own time and place. To endeavor to “solve the problem of evil” is to buy into a sophist’s game, and a dangerous one at that. Wanting to “explain away evil” is like seeking an excuse not to wrestle with the reality of suffering—a bit like passing along unwanted personal responsibility as we do in expecting the government to solve our problems without any personal sacrifice. Advent reminds Christians that we don’t have a set of ideals or blueprints to follow: We have a person to follow, to trust as we hike the steep and treacherous road before us. The invitation to follow offers hope and requires real individual responsibility. The God-man was born not to make suffering easy to explain, but to show us that he is Emmanuel: shoulder-to-shoulder with us, bearing the heavy yoke alongside us, as we seek justice, resist evil and speak truth, one complex circumstance at a time.