We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Paradoxical Meeting of Wisdom and Power

In an earlier posting, entitled "The Element of Surprise," I observed how the birth stories in the Gospel of Matthew begins in chapter one with a series of surprises including, for example, Mary's surprising pregnancy and Joseph's surprising willingness to stick with her in the face of the inevitable scandal.  By the opening of chapter two (verses 1-6), surprise has morphed into paradox.  These verses introduce, of course, the story of the wise men of Sunday school pageant fame.

What the pageants miss is the deeper drama of the wisdom of the East seeking the royal power of the Jews and finding that power in an infant, one born to an otherwise inconsequential couple who were not even legally married.  Wisdom found the king, but the king was a kid.  Now, there was no question that this infant was indeed the messiah, the savior king of the Jews.  The star confirmed it.  His residence in Bethlehem just as "it has been written by the prophet" also confirmed it.  And in wisdom's discovery of power in an infant lies the central theological paradox and insight of the Christian faith, which is that God does not come to us in a Solomon, a figure of obvious power and supposed wisdom, but in a child of no particular significance otherwise.

Now, in a formal theological sense, we already know all of this, but there is always a tendency among Christians to forget the scandal and the paradox involved.  We have traditionally tended to prefer the "birth narrative" of John 1:1-18, which clothes Jesus, the Word (often seen as a veiled reference to Sophia, wisdom), in the majesty of creation.  And the story of wisdom seeking power in an infant has been consigned to a more sentimental, Christmas-y purpose, one that carefully never reads on as far is the massacre of the children in Matthew 2:16-18.  The paradox of the baby messiah, however, looms over the whole of the Gospel of Matthew, and in that paradox we see the shadow of the cross and the promise of resurrection.