Advent Reflection 10: Captive

“The Lord sets the prisoners free…” (Ps. 146:7c)

It is “In the days of Herod, King of Judea” that the Luke’s narrative begins (Lk. 1:5). It’s a historical footnote for the modern day reader, but for Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, the I-don’t-know-maybe-three wise men, the shepherds and the sheep and the innkeeper, Herod’s kingship meant that Israel’s king had not yet come.

Herod was a king in the way Moses might have been king had he ignored that burning Voice that spoke his name the day his conscience caught fire. Moses was adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh, the wealthiest man on earth, and possibly would have one day been put in charge of some region of grandpa’s empire, perhaps the region where all the Hebrew slaves were living. He looked like them, after all. In that case, he would have been a Hebrew “king” over Hebrew slaves under the king of Egypt.

Herod was something like that, except Pharaoh was Caesar and Egypt was Rome. Herod was a puppet king for Rome—with a Jewish tan. But let’s just say he was one chopstick short of being a fully functional human. So he had a favorite wife, Mariamne I. Then he murdered her. When he was made king over Judea, he made the brother he most respected high priest in Jerusalem. Makes sense. Then he had him drowned at a dinner party. When the two sons he had with Mariamne I grew up he promoted them to a track of royal succession. A nice gesture. Then he had them executed. He made his son Antipater the first heir in his will. Then, while lying in his deathbed, he decided, “Ah, what the heck…” and had him executed too. Then he died.

Oh, there was also that time the [not-so-]wise men inquired to him, the “king” of Judea, about the King of Israel being born in Bethlehem, so he had every male child under the age of two executed (Mt. 2:16-17)—a fallen apple not far from Pharaoh’s tree, it turns out (Exod. 1:22).

So it’s hard to say: did Israel need liberation from Caesar’s captivity or from Herod’s? Was it the ruler without or the ruler within that posed the more immanent threat of freedom? Is it Islamic radicalism or is it American consumerism? Is is American consumerism or is it my compulsory shopping habit? Is it corporate greed or is it my white knuckles? Is it civil strife of the kind that lives in my home, or the kind that lives in my heart? Is it sex trafficking in Thailand or is it the porn industry, or is it the iPhone industry, or is it the iPhone in my pocket? Or perhaps it is something about the fact that human heart is bent inward toward itself like an iron arrow.

Perhaps (re: without a doubt) the most severe form of human captivity on the planet is the human will. We all, deep down, have a Herod in our heart. We all want freedom from sin, except that part of us that wants the freedom to keep on sinning. We want to be healthy, but we don’t want to not feed our habits. We all want people to just love each other and stop firing missiles, except of course I’m going to keep a ‘record of wrongs’ on my wife (cf. 1 Cor. 13:5) and make sure to fire a comment back, right at the heart of her deepest insecurity. How else can I maintain control? Shame is the heaviest chain.

Come give us freedom, Lord Jesus: from death and hell, from hopelessness and fear, liberate us from our enemies and our obstacles. Amen, hallelujah! But don’t save us from our pride and from our selfishness. Don’t offer us liberation from our throne of independence.

We all want to do God’s will, except we never want to do “Not my will…” (Lk. 22:42).

But liberation by means of a cross means the world needs liberated from me, and that I need liberated from me. I need to be raised from the dead, but I first need to be “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20-22). Most of us aren’t like Pharaoh, but all of us are a little like Herod. We all love ourselves a little more than our fellow man, our family; we love our way more than even our own well-being. And therein lies the root of all our relational brokenness.

We also tend to have this habit of holding people captive to our expectations of them; everyone is constantly evaluated according to how they treat me, notice me, benefit me, affirm me, congratulate me, like my facebook posts, heart my instagram pics, tell me that I’m right, amen my gossip, etc. We struggle to just let people be. We don’t like freedom. We like control. We don’t want God to give us an open field and say “Love me, love others.” We want a checklist. We feel ashamed in front of others–God, people–so we like to pile on exterior accolades, whether it’s performance, piety, the bandwagon of some noble cause, whatever, it can all be used as a hiding place for an imprisoned soul.

But sometimes we aren’t so disciplined, and the ol’ “lusts of the flesh” get the best of us, and we “liberate” our flesh from the captivity of self-discipline. But human freedom is not simply the power of the will to act; it is the power of the will to love, because love is the ultimate and essential human desire. With the will not oriented toward its proper end the power of the will to act is nothing more than the will to power, the drive of life toward infinite desire rather than infinite satisfaction. It attends to an indefinite future without ever reaching the present moment; it is the urgent now, not the eternal now. It is about survival, not life, the will’s appetite for more, not the will’s concern for life. The unfettered will will eventually find itself chained to desire’s shortest leash. Every addict knows this. Most people with instragram do too.

So perhaps today, just for one day, we could be uncomfortably honest with ourselves, like really question our own motives, and ask: who is living under the burden of my control? Have I enslaved myself to desire, to simply ‘my self’? Or have I enslaved others? Does it feel like “the days of Herod” around me?

If so, maybe it’s time to go ahead and announce the arrival of another King, even if it is a little early… A simple “Will you forgive me?” is a good start.

[To read an expanded discussion the freedom of the will, power, pride, love, and the Trinity (not in that order), click here]. 

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