The Song of Zechariah
“You can’t handle the truth!”
If you are good at movie trivia you might recognise that quote. It comes from the 1992 movie, A Few Good Men” out of the mouth of Colonel Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson. The truth as the Colonel sees it is “that we live in a world that has walls, and those have to be guarded by men with guns.” The truth, in Colonel Jessup’s view, is something that for the good of the majority is held by men in power, and only revealed to those who need to know, and defended with violence.
It is reminiscent of another view of truth encountered in George Orwell’s chilling dystopian fiction, 1984. The chief protagonist, Winston Smith asks O’Brien, inner Party member, about truth, but knows in advance what he will say;
That the Party did not seek power for its own ends, but only for the good of the majority. That it sought power because men in the mass were frail cowardly creatures who could not endure liberty or face the truth, and must be ruled over and systematically deceived by others who were stronger than themselves.
There are those who wield truth as power and those who would rather believe in reassuring fantasies (and even submit to oppressive powers) than face the truth. It is perhaps the reason why the word “post- truth” which came of age in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump, continues to haunt us. Are we living in a post-truth world because people no longer value the truth or because we can’t face the truth? Hannah Arendt has commented that “if everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. (1974 interview with Roger Errera)
Last week we lit the candle of hope, affirming that there is something worth believing in, and that truth, when it is faced, can set us free. Today we lit the candle of peace, holding that even amidst all the conflict of the world and even in our own communities, God is lighting the path that we may more clearly find the way of peace. At Advent we prepare our hearts for the light coming into the world by which we may see truth and be transformed by it. The song of Zechariah makes this link between the light that reveals life and shows us how to walk in peace;
In the tender compassion of our God:
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death:
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
We need to remember that in Advent we are preparing our hearts not for a baby in a manger but for the Word of God; the incarnation of the holy encountered in the life and ministry of Jesus. It is to this Word, not to the manger, that the prophet John the Baptist points- John was, after all, a baby himself at the time of Jesus’ birth. John is crying out in the wilderness that a change is coming, that there will be a great revealing, and we need to prepare ourselves for the shock that it will be. The truth will set you free, but first it can confront you, discomfort you or even grieve you.
How does God come to us? As fire, refining fire, suggests the prophet in the reading from Malachi, and perhaps this kind of metaphor is adequate to help us understand the all-consuming work of the Spirit in our lives if we have the courage. Advent is seen as a penitential season because of this sense of taking very seriously God coming to us and the radical, disturbing reality of what that could mean for our lives. We need to clear our hearts and minds for the one whose light will shine so brightly upon us that we will be made uncomfortably vulnerable by what it reveals. John’s message calls us to make straight the paths in the wilderness of our lives, unearthing that which is rough and crooked, exposing the surprise and wonder of God’s salvation.
How do we understand that salvation? What if our salvation lies in opening our hearts so much to the presence of Christ that we truly are set free from the need to perform or conform…set free from the compulsive need to measure up to some standard set by ourselves or others and can accept the free gift of God’s forgiveness and grace. This does mean we need to drop our pride- our sense of having it all together or being better than others- and receive the tender compassion of our God, so that the dawn may break. Advent can prompt us to a gentle practice of self-examination where we are no longer afraid to see the truth about ourselves and about our world, opening us to the transformative agency of the Spirit. Unless, of course, we decide we can’t handle the truth, and prefer our own darkness.
Have you ever been not sure you can handle the truth? This may be very different from the Colonel Jessup way of believing that some have the right to truth and others do not, and that the powerful in the world are allowed to cover up their works of violence. There are certainly examples of truths that we would prefer not to face about history or the nature of privilege or the environmental crisis. Truths that we can’t handle might also include things we would rather not see about ourselves. Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves become so compelling and central to our identity, that we would sacrifice much- even perhaps the truth- to maintain the potency of the narrative. It may not be that we live in a post-truth world. It may not be that we no longer believe anything anyone tells us. But it may be that our allegiances – to groups, to ideologies, to class, to a certain way of structuring society, to religion as we understand it- can become like a cloak of darkness over the truth. As Tom Chatfield comments;
Bonds of trust ultimately still hold us. In this sense, the most dangerous lies are not so much those that deny reality, but those that pit trust against truth- that substitute loyalty to a group, a myth, a conspiracy, for that harder and more hopeful thing: our efforts to become less deceived. (Tom Chatfield, Evolving Truth, New Philosopher #34)
Isn’t that what we are preparing for? The light that is coming into the world that we may become less deceived by the darkness that would hide us from God and one another, binding us in shame and robbing us of life? That light is harder to face but infinitely more hopeful. We are called to be light-bearers who shine the way for others that they may be strengthened to find the courage freedom demands. Are we ready for the vision cast of a world where all flesh can see salvation? Are we ready for the change involved if all violence and oppression were to cease and reconciliation not just talked about but lived through a commitment to justice that honours the dignity and freedom of all?
George Orwell envisioned a world of totalitarian control made possible because humankind are “cowardly creatures” who cannot “endure liberty or face the truth.” I think we need to urgently prepare for the coming of the Word made flesh because the truth of the incarnation is that God holds a higher view of humanity than we may hold or ever hope for ourselves. Can we accept the dignity God would confer on you…on me…as children of God and co-creators of the world? What if we were all to become the liberated and loving creatures God intended us to be?
We must never forsake truth for the cold comfort of security or group identity. We cannot talk about the love of God while judging one another and building walls between us. If we play at religion but avoid the risk and pain of opening ourselves to the presence of Christ, we will remain in the darkness of our own creation. Jesus comes, calling us to be fully human, as he is fully human, inviting us to take the courageous step of opening ourselves to the beauty and light and love of God. It is for freedom that we are set free. This is the truth for which we prepare ourselves. This Advent, perhaps we could commit anew to the decision to not settle for anything less.