Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas meditation

Last year's meditation is here.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  It is my personal opinion that he did so by natural processes knowable through science, and that he peopled the earth with creatures through natural selection -- guided at every stage, of course, by his own unseen hand.

Adam and Eve, growing up as the only humans on earth, must have realized early on how different they were from every other creature.  The physically similar beings they had descended from spoke, certainly, but not as humans do.  They had one cry for "danger," one for "look at this," but only Adam and Eve gave names to every creature they saw.  The animals had instincts to direct their actions, while Adam and Eve also had reason.  Reason and instinct together might be confusing, but Adam and Eve were blessed with the special gift of being fully aware and in control of the promptings of their instincts, and able to apply reason to what they learned.  The other animals would feel the chill in the air and without reflection begin a migration.  Our first parents, as the weather grew colder, would observe the wind and clouds and plot a course that would bring them to the safest possible place.  The other animals would see food and eat it; the humans learned what conditions were favorable to this or that plant, and seek out new food sources.

The greatest gift they had was the ability to be constantly aware of God's presence.  They didn't "pray" as we do -- they simply spoke to God and clearly heard his answers.  If ever they were in doubt about something, they could discuss it with God.

They also had one ability no other animal had: rather than being slaves to their instincts, they had the ability to freely choose whether to do right or wrong.  It was clear to them what the right thing was: at all times, God made his will apparent.  But at one point, God made a request of them they didn't want to obey.

The Bible speaks of a fruit; this may have been a symbol of something else.  It doesn't really matter what it was.  Anything would have done; any trifling detail.  God told them, "Don't do this."  Adam and Eve were intelligent and wise, but they didn't see the reason for God's command.  It seemed unfair to tell them to do something that they couldn't have figured out on their own.  Wasn't it their right, as the crown of all creation, possessing intelligence, to use their own reason to know what to do?  Why should they have to listen to a command that seemed arbitrary to them?  A fallen angel was handily around to encourage that line of thinking.  Why obey just for the sake of obeying?  If they were really wise, it should be up to them to discern good and evil, not God.

So they disobeyed God.  At that moment, the special gifts they had been enjoying vanished.  That perfect harmony between instinct and intelligence was gone.  Adam thought, "Why should I have to go pick food today?  I'm not in the mood."  Eve looked down at her belly and thought, "When did I get so fat?"  For the first time ever, they felt awkward in one another's presence.  Immediately they rushed to invent another peculiarity of the rational animal: clothing.

After the Fall, their human nature was sadly changed.  Sometimes their instincts took over when reason should be ruling, and they would overeat one kind of fruit or ignore another they knew was good for them.  Other times they ignored their instincts in favor of some misguided notion they had in their heads, and would sulk instead of embracing one another.  Eve, when she gave birth to her first child, couldn't seem to listen to the instincts that would tell her how to give birth.  Instead she fought them and experienced the anguish of tense labor pains.

Worst of all, they could no longer hear God's inner voice.  They sometimes tried to pray, but the words seemed to come echoing back, unanswered.  They weren't sure if this was their own newfound weakness, or if God really had abandoned them.  With all their might, they remembered God's last clear word to them: someday, far in the future, one of their descendents would destroy evil forever.  Without that promise, they might have died of despair; but instead they took up their tools, worked, and waited.

Generations came and went, each sorrier than the last.  Adam and Eve's oldest child killed his younger brother, and they learned for the first time what death was.  Within a short time, mankind had become utterly corrupt.  From fear and doubt, men moved on to utter disbelief, saying in their hearts, "There is no God."  They had no reason to believe differently, having never seen any sign other than the story handed down from their ancestors.  They did evil, but even this is less to be blamed, because no one had ever told them what was good to do.  All they had was their broken reason and twisted instincts.

In every age, however, God kept the news of himself alive.  He chose the best humans he could find and spoke to them, and despite their fear and doubt, they heard and obeyed him.  Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses.  Every time, God revealed a little more of himself.  "Here I am, the one who created you," he explained, "and I see that you are lost and confused.  Let me make it simpler for you.  Just do these ten things."

Of course the Israelites did not do those ten things, so they were given further, more specific instructions.  The Law was unable to bring any of them salvation from their devastating brokenness, but it gave them direction.  It set them apart from every nation.  Despite wars, migrations, deportations, and conquests, and against all odds, the people of Israel survived, some of the only monotheists in the world.  The rest of the world thought them very foolish, with their strict rules and strange stories, and they were considered a backward and uncivilized bunch.

God tried and tried to re-establish the connection with man he'd had at the beginning.  He sent judges, kings, and prophets.  But time and again, the chosen people dropped the ball.  They strayed.  They worshiped false gods.  Some became obsessed with the minutiae of the Law and forgot the God who had given it.  Time and again, God offered them another chance.  But it didn't seem to be enough.  Fallen man was powerless to break free of the ancient curse of sin.  Generation after generation died and was lost.  No one knew if there might be something after death, but no one had much hope that they could ever be reunited with God, in life or in death.

The rest of the world kept on its way, trying and trying to figure out what we were here on this earth for.  Man is the only animal that asks that question.  Every other animal knows, without having to ask, what it is supposed to be doing.  Man wonders.  Sometimes he obeys the rule of natural selection, living only to procreate.  Other times he is seized with an irrational hatred: man makes war, enslaves, executes, rapes, steals, hurts.  Sometimes he raises his eyes to the stars and asks questions.  Philosophers in Greece asked "Why are we here?" and "Where is here?" and "What is the world made of?" and that impossible question, "What should we do?"  Statesmen in Rome said, "Let us plan everything out just right, and we will make the most efficient system.  Surely then we will be happy."  Only they weren't.  Polytheism, Stoicism, Epicurianism, mystery religions, one by one each failed to satisfy and people flocked to the next new thing.

The ages already planned by God having been fulfilled, God did a truly new thing.

He sent His son.

That was the purpose of all the preparation, the promise, the hints in all the different prophecies.  What seemed aimless, cryptic, purposeless, all turned out to be leading up to something completely new.  God knew man could not save himself.  Man had tried everything and failed.  On his own, mankind knew nothing but misery.  God himself was to be the cure.  He would change the rules of the game.  No longer would we have to guess at what God might want or whether that voice we'd thought we'd heard was him.  He would take a shape we could see and feel.  And no longer would we wonder if it was impossible for man to be good.  He would take not only our shape but our nature, so that we would know exactly what a good life would look like, lived by a man like ourselves.

But even that wasn't enough.  Being told what to do, being shown how to do it, was still not good enough.  We had the curse of death on us and our sadly broken nature.  God himself would repair it.  He would take all the blame himself, taste the curse of death himself, and mend the gap between heaven and earth.  He would do all that, by accepting a punishment he didn't deserve.

On that cold night in Bethlehem, when shepherds came to peer into an old feed-box at a rather ordinary-looking newborn, they could not have guessed who the child was or what he had come to do.  And yet all the signs were there that something very important was happening, something requiring recognition by the wisest king and the poorest shepherd.  God had become man and nothing would ever be the same again.

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