Who Will You Be Expecting This Advent?
In his translation of selected works from the wisdom of Chuang Tzu, the late Christian mystic and theologian Thomas Merton included this poem, which I was struck by and knew I'd write about one day.
The Kingly Man realizes, this hides it in his heart,
Grows boundless, wide-minded, draws all to himself.
And so he lets the gold lie hidden in the mountain,
Leaves the pearl lying in the deep.
Goods and possessions are no gain in his eyes.
He stays far from wealth and honor.
Long life is no ground for joy, nor early death for sorrow.
Success is not for him to be proud of, failure is no shame.
Had he all the world's power he would not hold it as his own.
If he conquered everything he would not take it to himself.
His glory is in knowing that all things come together as One,And life and death are equal.
Chuang Tzu's poem was written in the 4th century BCE, hence the non-inclusive gender references, but you get the point.
The intent was to apply this wisdom to everyone who desired to understand what it meant to gain power and wield it well. They also need to recognize a proper leader when they see one.
It would be something to find a leader like this, wouldn't it? Good luck sniffing one out in any level of government in our current culture.
In fact, you'd have to take Chuang Tzu's virtues and invert them to describe most of our elected officials these days. Power and wealth are the only things they care about. Everything else they do is a means to those two ends, no matter their ideology.
Perhaps what motivated Merton to include this poem in his translation is that something within it resonated with him vis-a-vis Jesus himself.
To that point, almost all of the words of the Hebrew prophets found in the New Testament describing Jesus paint a portrait of a leader who gives of himself, even to death, for the sake of the people.
This is the perfect pre-Advent reflection for those of us preparing for the subsequent arrival of the Messiah and all that entails.
As Christians, we believe Advent is a centering point for us as we begin the new year within the historic church calendar. It's a time for us to be made ready and reminded that Christ is always arriving, showing up in whatever moments redemption is needed, resurrection is warranted, and the world needs hope.
But how do we recognize the Messiah when the Messiah arrives? What does that look like? It might look like what Chuang Tzu describes as the "Kingly man." This is the kind of leader, the kind of king, that we long for.
This king acts the opposite way a leader in our culture would work. This king loves sacrificially, gives freely, rejects all the regular notions of power, and simply exists to allow for the flourishing of others and all of Creation.
Any other vision of Christ is off the mark.
A version of Jesus that resembles anyone else, including political figures that far too many people who claim to follow Jesus lionize or describe in reverent tones, isn't Jesus. Period.
Far too often, when Americans look to the Church to try and see Jesus, they see something completely different than what Tzu and the Hebrew prophets described.
They see a combative, pugilistic version of Jesus who is ready to do battle at the drop of a hat, isn't shy about belittling or demeaning others, and has so little regard for the humanity of those outside of the Christian bubble; it's not only alarming but destructive.
As we prepare for the season of Advent and the expectation of the Messiah, let us reframe our understanding of who we're waiting for.
The One we call the King of Kings and Lord of Lords took on the form of a servant and was willing to give his life to save even those who crucified him. He was born into a poor refugee family in the most non-descript way.
He was tempted by power but never gave in to the temptation to wield it, except to heal, resurrect, and restore in the service of others. The only people he chided were the ones who thought they were too close to God to be reproached.
We're expecting Jesus, the Christ.
May those expectations give us hope and joy as we seek the shalom of the world And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us all, now and forever. Amen.