Theology

An Advent Reflection: Our Scapegoats Revealed

In Matthew 2, Herod, the puppet king of the Jews, hears rumors that the promised savior has been born. As we well know, he learned of the birth from a group of traveling wise men who had come to the king hoping to learn the same. Under the guise of piety, Herod asks the wise men to discover the location and report back, “so that I too can go and worship him” (Mt 2:8). With divine aid, the wise men find the child they were looking for and worship him, then heed the angelic warning and “returned to their own country by another route” (Mt 2:12). When Herod learned he had been “outwitted by the wise men, [he] flew into a rage. He gave orders to massacre all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men” (Mt 2:16), and revealing his true desires.

Herod should have known better. He was the then-king of the Jews, surrounded by priests versed in Jewish Scripture. He knew the Jewish people awaited a coming Messiah who would rescue them from sin and oppression, restore the world to its rightful place, overthrow empires of injustice, and lead Israel and the world into a new peace. Like his people, Herod should have longed for the Messiah, but coming face-to-face with the reality of Jesus’ incarnation, his true desires were revealed. In the young Jewish boy, Herod saw a threat: a threat to his power, his kingship, and his desires, and out of fear and resentment, he unleashed a stroke of pointless violence so great and barbaric that few historic moments will ever be able to rival it. He massacred the weak and innocent. He scapegoated children to numb his own fear. He tried to hide behind religious language and empty piety, but the incarnation of Jesus cut through all of it and made Herod’s true desires known. That is exactly what the incarnation of Jesus does.

What We Truly Desire

As it did for Herod, the advent of Jesus forces us to ask what we want, what we truly desire. It cuts through shallow attempts to hide and eviscerates our religious language. We can shout until our throats bleed that “we are Christians,” but when confronted with the person of Jesus we learn our true desires; there can be no rivals. We can be king, or Jesus can. Herod was unwilling to relinquish power, even though his own efforts hadn’t gotten him or his people anywhere. He saw Jesus’ kingship as a threat to his own, and we humans—we don’t endure threats well.

We can shout until our throats bleed that “we are Christians,” but when confronted with the person of Jesus we learn our true desires; there can be no rivals. We can be king, or Jesus can. Click To Tweet

Jesus’ advent reveals our hearts by challenging our power, as it did for Herod, but also by confronting us with the things and people we hate the most. Jesus arrives as an “other.” His first advent doesn’t look kingly or majestic––it’s obscure, dirty, and hard like an immigrant family crossing the border at night. Jesus’ origins and life are so mundane and poor that they were offensive to his own followers (Jn 1:43-46). At no point does that change; Jesus lives his life in obscurity and poverty, becomes an object of resentment, and is crushed by the consumption of an empire (Phil 2:6-8). And this is how Jesus gets at the deepest parts of our hearts: he reveals our truest desires by identifying with our scapegoats, with the people we blame for our dissonance and discontentment. He confronts us with the other, the ones we’ve commodified and re-narrated––with the people we name as threats and pawns. He tells the world, “If you want to get to them, you have to go through me,” and we do, and then with blood on our hands––the scapegoat sacrificed–– we start to see what we’ve become. Jesus reveals our deepest desire by taking them all into himself and suffering the cost of it.

Where You Meet Your Shore

Scapegoats absorb our hostility, resentment, and violence. They pay the price of our dissonance and fear, and in return, we find brief catharsis, a tonic to numb the pain. It is a violent and terrible cycle, but it works, for a moment, and that’s why we do it. When we scapegoat, we genuinely believe we are doing the right thing; we believe we are saving our communities, protecting our culture, defending our values; if we didn’t, we wouldn’t. Scapegoating loses power when the lights are turned on and the cycle made known. As Rene Girard writes, “To have a scapegoat is not to know that one has one. As soon as the scapegoat is revealed and named as such, it loses its power.” Jesus reveals the violent cycle and names the commodified scapegoats by becoming the ultimate scapegoat, paying the ultimate price, and absorbing every ounce of violent resentment into himself.

On the cross, Jesus identifies with the victims of our violence and takes our resentment into himself. He aims the world’s greatest weapons at himself––all of our malice, fear, and dissonance. Instead of seeing violence and coercion as effective tools, he lays down his weapons and turns open-armed to the injustice of the world. He absorbs the dark into himself. He looks at the tide of hate and says, “You shall go no farther than me. I am where you meet your shore.” And at the end of it all, once our hate and energy has been expended, we collapse empty-handed, breathless, and disarmed, before the Lamb that was slain who offers us grace and a chance to come home.

Once our hate and energy has been expended, we collapse empty-handed, breathless, and disarmed, before the Lamb that was slain who offers us grace and a chance to come home. Click To Tweet

In his book Farewell to Mars, Brian Zahnd describes the cross as “shock therapy for a world addicted to solving its problems through violence. The cross shocks us into the devastating realization that our system of violence murdered God!” On the cross, we see the emptiness and devastation of our system, but at the same time we see a love that knows no bounds. It’s the most counterintuitive thing in the world––like a loving father who welcomes home prodigal children––which is why it’s the only thing that makes any sense.

Jesus reveals our desires, our fears, and our violence by becoming the object of our fear and hate. He triggers our empty attempts at preservation and challenges our claims at kingship. He unmasks our religious piety and shines a light on our deepest desires. He takes our resentment into himself. He lets us exhaust ourselves in him not to destroy, condemn, or shame but to offer us grace. To call us home. To heal us.

As we enter the story of Advent this year, may it open our hearts and reveal our desires. As Simeon tells Mary about her newborn babe:

This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too.

—Lk 2:34-35

As we preach, lead, and curate spaces of Advent hope and expectation, may the light of Christ’s arrival expose our hearts, name our desires, and shine anew on those we scapegoat. And above all, may the great reveal of Advent call us home.