There’s a point in the movie, The Avengers, when Loki, ostensibly the villain of the piece, intimidates a crowd into frightened silence, orders everyone to kneel before him, and then says:
“Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end you will always kneel.”
Those of us who have grown up in a culture saturated by messages of independence and individuality, we have a visceral objection. We’re conditioned to despise tyranny, and to be rather extravagant when dispensing that label. Freedom is sacrosanct; “ego volo” is more convincing than “deus vult” ever was.
The movie intentionally evokes that very response. We’re supposed to abhor what Loki is saying, and then to thrill as the movie slows down to focus on the elderly man who resists Loki and refuses to kneel. It’s like the scene at the end of Dead Poets Society, albeit with more costumed heroes and less grandiosity: we’re supposed to side with the rebel, because the rebel values freedom. Then over time, as we’re exposed to similar exhortations repeatedly, we become more like that rebel ourselves. We also learn to triumph over tyrants.
Unfortunately, then we get to Christmas and discover that we’re unfit for it. We sing songs like “O Come Let Us Adore Him,” but we don’t actually know how to adore anyone. Sure we talk about adoring people and we say that some people are adorable, but we don’t mean it in the same way. We don’t venerate and worship them; at best we’re describing a strong affection we have toward them. Too often we mean something more obsessive and dehumanizing; we adore people the way we might adore chocolate cake: we want to consume them for our own pleasure.
As a way of explaining what I mean, consider monarchy. Those of us without one, and those of us who have one but don’t value it, don’t have practice appreciating people for being what we can’t be ourselves. We don’t have practice celebrating what we can’t ourselves attain. We can only comfortably praise someone if we can want to be in their place and expect that someday we might; otherwise we mostly get jealous and decry the injustice of it.
When Britain’s Prince William married Catherine Middleton, their wedding was televised around the world, but where I live, the most frequent topic was the future Duchess’ status as a commoner. It was a Cinderella story, something with which we could connect. A lot of people enjoyed it because it symbolized the hope (however remote) that anyone could become royalty someday.
Had Prince William instead married a Princess from some other hereditary monarchy, I suspect the story would have been received differently. People would likely have called the celebration showy, unnecessary, and in poor taste. They likely would have objected that our society is too advanced to believe in archaic concepts like nobility, that the existence of royalty was contrary to justice, that the Prince and his bride ought to have been ashamed of themselves. Some pundit somewhere would have expounded on the virtue of other systems, the ones in which there was at least the illusion that anyone can become powerful and important.
We don’t like the idea of being ruled, especially if there’s any suggestion that the person ruling is better than us in some way. We only accept it (to the extent that we do accept it) if we feel that we might at least be a part of it, at least through some sort of representation. We may never actually try to be a part of it, but the possibility makes the existence of authority less objectionable.
This is one of the reasons people get so angry about politics, especially those with minority opinions; once the ability to affect the authority has been called into question, objection to that authority inevitably follows. We don’t like being ruled. We don’t like not being equal with everyone.
We can’t be equal to Jesus though. We can’t be him, nor can we control him. We can’t make him require less righteousness from us, nor can we convince him to adjust his definition of righteousness until we’re comfortable with it. Adoring him, actual and proper adoration, would just remind us of those uncomfortable truths.
So it’s hard for us to do it. Instead we change the story. We make him our friend or our neighbor, rather than our Lord. We make him a symbol, a metaphor, an idea, rather than a person to who we would have to submit. We try to make him adorable in the friendly, cute, and harmless sense–like an adorable puppy–but only pay lip service to the idea that in the end, “every knee will bow” and “every tongue will confess” that he is our rightful ruler and judge (Philippians 2:10-11, NASB).
You see, Loki is actually right: we are made to be ruled, and seeking freedom from that rule only makes us unhappy. We were just never made to be ruled by Loki. There’s a twist for us, and that twist begins at Christmas.
Whereas Loki ruled through fear and was eager to kill any who opposed him, Christ in meekness came to his enemies in the least scary, most vulnerable way possible: he came as a baby. We deserved fear and death, but he came on an altogether different mission than conquest; he came to join us, to reach out to us, to persuade us, to redeem us, and to give us life.
He could have come in power with a host of angels as his unstoppable army, but he’s humble, so he became vulnerable (a baby) and isolated (in a barn). He could have come to force us to submit, to remind us that he is God and we are dust, but he’s good, so he became a human being like us to walk with us and face struggles just like we do, starting with the basic struggles of finding a roof and a bed. He could have come to destroy us–we are rebels to his rightful throne–but he’s merciful, so he came with an invitation back to himself, a chance to use the freedom we craved to choose the God who would sacrifice himself for our sake.
We adore the newborn Jesus at Christmas because, as a poor baby in a cave, our rightful and unavoidable Lord revealed what sort of Lord he was: merciful, good, and humble. We can’t avoid being ruled–we were created for Jesus, who is our Lord even if we shut tight our eyes, plug our ears, shake our heads and shout that it isn’t true–but if we object to his rule we don’t understand it.
Christmas is a chance to encounter him again, to glimpse his character and see how it answers our objections. He is worthy of worship; we don’t need to defend ourselves from him. O come, let us adore him.