Within three days of the good news, comes the bad news. Yes, the Word has become flesh and is dwelling among us; but there seems to be a catch: the process of full redemption and recovery is to be accomplished within human beings, resistant materials that they are, step by step. As Robert Frost once observed ‘the best way out is always through’. Indeed the whole logic of incarnation is that God’s reaction to our evil is to meet it head on, not to steer round it. If this is the nature of the operation, the fulness of any redemption brought us in this holy child is bound to be a process that works from the inside out, needing to take flesh in real people through the seemingly random and cruel processes of the world, not a magic wand job.
Reality itself is not a magic wand job. Beneath the angel strain will roll at least two thousand years of wrong. At the sharp end of that will be innocent victims who will have to take their chances in a precarious and unjust world. The fact that God counts himself among them and takes his chances like the rest of us may be some comfort, but not exactly comforting. Herod does his thing, makes his choice, and the kiddies die anyway.
‘Rome wasn’t built in a day,’ observed the late great Brian Clough. ‘But then I wasn’t on that particular job.’ If Brian, or indeed most of us accustomed to having what we want at the click of a mouse, ruled the world, this is how it would be: Jesus would appear, ping! every one would go ‘Aha!’ ping! Herod would have no choice. The swords would turn to rubber or something, or at least the henchmen would call in sick. Herod could wish anything he wanted, however evil, but he would be unable to vent his paranoia in the real world. That would be that.
But what would that be? That would be the Fat Controller, the manipulator, pushing the buttons, wouldn’t it? That would be God the village copper, sorting everything out with the cheery wave, a few wallops, and the occasional well-aimed Monty Python 16 Ton weight. And if the whole message of the Incarnation is that God isn’t actually any of those things, it’s disappointing, perhaps, but hardly surprising that the Kingdom of God isn’t a ‘Ping’ thing. The ping has to come from us. It doesn’t merely happen on autopilot — indeed nothing happens like that.
What’s the point of kingdom come being a slow painful internal process, you may say. There might as well not be a God at all!
Well, not quite. It there weren’t a God at all, none of this would ultimately matter anyway, on anything but a notional, intellectual level. Unjust suffering would be no more significant than any other happenstance. We would just have to conclude ‘It happens,’ like sunspots or black holes. Being Nasty might be possible to portray as ultimately illogical, but Herod, and a thousand tyrants since, have a slightly different logic of their own, and, in a Nietzschean universe where might is right, who would be able to say they were wrong?
Over and above the particular choices that Herod, or for that matter any of us, may make, the wrongness of this unjust suffering stands in contrast to the justice of God, which stands eternal. That means it is what it is, whatever we may think of it, and remains supreme on a meta level. Indeed it defines the terms in which these things happen, whilst leaving us free to choose. Herod may get away with it, but no excuse he may offer can ever be adequate. No amount of rage and spite, power and opportunity, can change injustice into justice. That really would put us in a fix, far more than being told the score and given the choice.
The Christmas story turns out to be a moral compass, not a remote control device. Power games and bullying, attempting to fiddle the books by manipulating the politics regardless of the human cost, will always be off limits — a sign that the kingdom has not quite come in us as fully as it wants to, whether we are Herod or Hitler, a world leader or poor clergy of the Anglican communion. Oh, but Herod will say, what’s the alternative? The alternative is faith, but it’s harder to live by faith than by manipulation, especially if we seemingly have the means to accomplish our will by the latter. To think and act differently, we need a renewed outlook, and the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit, nudging us along the way to wholeness and hope. And each step we take closer to that advances the peace and salvation of ourselves and all the world.
Alan Wilson is area Bishop of Buckingham in the diocese of Oxford.