This summer, here along the border between Nebraska and Iowa in the center of the U.S., the mighty Missouri River overflowed its banks and flooded much of the lowlands on both sides of the river. Many homes, farms, and businesses were under water for months. When the water did begin to recede, it did so slowly, almost teasingly. I visited one place where the flood had totally covered a park and was slowly receding. The aftermath of any flood is full of irony, and I tried to capture some of it in this photograph:
Today’s first reading, from Isaiah, speaks to this irony by giving examples of things that just don’t make sense to us. For example, Isaiah writes, “For more numerous are the children of the deserted wife than the children of her who has a husband.”
We have no control over the life into which we are born. If there were no irony, most of us would be condemned to a life of circumstances we could not overcome. Today’s readings tell us of a new world order. They are readings for the rest of us.
We are not a perfect people. Most of us don’t come from perfect, unblemished histories. If a registry agency (like the American Kennel Club here in the U.S.) wrote papers on us, most of us would not be purebreds – we’d be mutts.
And the good news, in today’s readings, is that the coming Messiah promises to make the world a place where mutts are welcome, where they belong. This is pure irony. Since we are sinners, both in thought and deed, it does not make sense that Jesus would come into the world for our salvation. Thus, we all share in this spiritual irony.
The power of irony is that something is perceived to be one way but is, after closer examination, quite another. In the above photograph, there are three ironic juxtapositions that I can identify (maybe there are more, can you see another?). First, the stop sign, meant to stop and control vehicular traffic, is almost pushed over by the silt and sand, which could not be stopped and obeys no laws. Second, the museum sign, which was made to romanticize the river and river life, bears the markings of the indiscriminate destructivity of a river that only has the illusion of being under human control. Finally, the weed in the foreground, poking up through the silt, is flowering, suggesting a return to normalcy that is coming soon. Three ironies exist all in one picture.
Like the stop sign, Jesus’ coming as the Messiah cannot be stopped – though some in power at the time attempted to do just that. Like the museum sign, many who romanticized the coming of the Messiah did not realize the true iconoclastic affect that He would have on the accepted social structures of the time. The Gospel passage for today alludes to this irony. And finally, like the flowering weed, the people of the Lord – the spiritual mutts – have been through some tough times and will persevere to enjoy the peaceful times ahead.
And ultimately, that is what Jesus’ coming is about – not only His coming as the Messiah, but his eventual passion, death, and resurrection. It is full of irony, because our sensibilities tell us that it shouldn’t be that way. Divinity should not be born to a meek virgin in a stable. Divinity should not hang out with tax collectors and prostitutes. Divinity should not be scourged and covered with spittle and hung up on a cross. Divinity should not have to be born into the world to pay for our sins.
Yet, like the event of birth itself, and like a flooding river, He is on His way and they cannot stop Him, even if they tried.
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