Well, I was settling in for a nice, peaceful before dawn blog when I came across this tweet on Twitter (link lost because it’s too early in the morning):
Can we venerate St Nicholas for reasons other than his alleged violence against Arius this year? I’m tired and would like a break from people celebrating violence.
Many people got on to congratulate the tweeter for her lovely and brave sentiment, commiserating with each other on the horrors of violence, and how St. Nicholas did so many other nice things, like giving gifts and being kind to the poor. Then the great Twitter stream rolled on in another direction and I was left only with this morning’s lections, which contain this curious line:
righteousness and peace kiss each other
It quite struck me for the simple fact that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that bleak Eddie Izzard video—the one where he’s dressed in black with long, drab, blond hair. The only flash of color is the hot pink of his pointy, perfectly manicured nails. Eddie Izzard wants us to get rid of all the violence by just all agreeing to treat each other as we’d like to be treated. The trouble is, according to him, half of humanity won’t do that. So that’s too bad. But we should all try anyway. Peace and righteousness—the two high ideals of this age, are constantly being admonished to kiss and make up. Stop your warfare, we say, as if we’re God chiding all of humanity.
Unfortunately, righteousness is, by its very nature, divisive. The whole point of righteousness is that it isn’t wrong, it isn’t corruptible, it isn’t bad or ugly. Therefore, in the swirl of human ruin, everywhere it goes it does not manage to cuddle up to make nice with the dregs of human pride or sin.
This is why the person accepting people’s offerings in the temple all day long, by the time he finally was able to let the knife fall and go home to his dinner, would have wandered away in an aura of blood. To get to have peace with a righteous God, so much innocent life had to flow down over that altar, down into the brook below so that it turned red. The embrace came at—at least in Twitter terms—a terrifying amount of death.
Peace, that glorious and desirable end, is only able to kiss righteousness under a mantle of blood. You might try to have peace without righteousness, making do with your own crooked way, but true goodness will have to divide itself from you. The division will feel violent, but that’s because embracing something sinful and wrong is a wicked thing to do.
In the shadow of God’s own righteousness, we have lots of “righteous” feelings one way or another. Take the tweet about St. Nicholas’ “alleged violence against Arius” that is the subject of so many of my favorite memes apportioned for today. The purpose of the tweet is not really to bring peace on earth. It is so that the tweeter will divide from herself all those unrighteous ones who, she would posit, “glorify violence” and are otherwise bad people. The purpose of the tweet is to divide one kind of person from another, to display righteousness, to be seen to be good before all one’s fellow men (what an offensive and divisive word that is).
And yet, there is some deep truth at the back of the virtue signal. Not that it wasn’t very nice of Nicholas to punch Arius, but that the church, then, as now, was in a period of profound division. Some were saying some things about God, some were saying other things. Not all of the things were true. Some were wrong, which is why Arius (allegedly) got his nose punched. He was wrong, deeply wrong, about Jesus. So wrong that had the church followed him there would have eventually been no church, no saving grace. You can’t follow the wrong Jesus and be saved. It’s just not possible. Nicholas, then, wasn’t some unhinged bishop, swinging wildly on Twitter, confused about how important peace is—he knew that the truth of the gospel demanded that Arius and all his heretical views be discredited.
Anyway, I get the desire for peace. I long for it very much. I want this part of the other lection to be for me:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
I also am tired and would like a break from “violence.” Or rather, the conflictual nature of life, the strife that constantly bubbles up not only between me and other people, but the divisions within my own flesh, the often-cruel sensation of God waging a war against sin. I don’t walk up all those steps with my lamb, ready to hand it over, watch it die, and then rest for a few minutes before going home to sin again. Honestly, that sounds slightly more bearable than having God cut his way through my life, punching out the lies and dredging out yet another comfortable corner of pride. Where is the comfort? That’s what I’d like to know. Feels too much on the side of war.
No, it is a strange idea for righteousness and peace to kiss each other. It isn’t possible, no matter how many tweets against violence go up on Twitter, no matter how many marathons Eddie Izzard runs, no matter how often I try to just keep my head down and avoid God’s righteous gaze. The only way it comes about is when you look at that final stream of blood, not of yet another animal, but of Jesus, who took on the world’s violence and endured it in order to buy an everlasting peace—for you. Look at that blood. Better yet, take a sip. Turns out it’s been turned into wine…a comforting, restoring, saving sip of wine.