December 9, 2018 — Second Sunday of Advent
Rev. Alison Quin
Tragic Downfall – Inevitable?
I just finished a Thomas Hardy novel—The Mayor of Casterbridge—that I have not looked at since I was forced to read it at age 14.
In the first few pages, the main character in the book makes a bad decision that hurts his family. The novel explores how that bad decision plays out over the course of decades, for him and for those around him. The tension in the novel is whether or not he can redeem his mistake and make amends—sometimes it looks as though he can, but then something else happens or he makes another bad decision, and it looks as though his downfall is inevitable.
The theme of a tragic flaw or fateful decision and the consequences that flow from it, is popular in literature, drama and film. Aristotle’s Rules of Tragedy require a protagonist with a tragic flaw that leads to death or defeat.
That theme runs through the Bible as well. Adam and Eve made a fateful decision to eat the apple and as a consequence, they had to leave Paradise. Joseph’s brothers decided to sell him into slavery, and as a consequence, all of Israel ended up enslaved in Egypt. When Israel was freed from slavery and led into the promised land, they turned away from God and oppressed their people, and as a result, their enemies invaded and carried them into exile.
I think this theme is so prevalent because it speaks to our condition. All of us have make bad decisions sometimes—decisions that have led us into exile in some way—from God, from others, and from our true selves.
I don’t think I’m ruining the novel for you by saying that it doesn’t end well for the main character. It’s Thomas Hardy—none of his novels have a truly happy ending.
But thank God, Thomas Hardy did not write the Bible. God is the Author of our lives. God is aware of our tragic flaws and our bad decisions, but God is not willing to allow us to spiral downward to a tragic end.
The history of Israel reflects God’s repeated interruption of the seemingly inevitable tragic downfall. God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt and led them to the promised land. God brought the exiles home from their captivity in Babylon. As the prophet Baruch writes: “Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them. For they went out from you on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne.”
But this is not just a story about people in ancient Israel—it is about all of us. God has made it clear that forgiveness and redemption are for all of humanity. All flesh shall see the salvation of God,” says John the Baptist, quoting Isaiah.
Whenever we are in exile, either as a result of our own mistakes, or from something that has happened to us, God does not abandon us there. It is God’s voice that cries out to us when we are in the wilderness, saying, “Come home, I will heal you and forgive you, and I will make all things new.”
God searches for us when we are lost, like the good shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go looking for the one that wandered off. God waits for us with open arms, ready to embrace us, like the loving father in the parable of the prodigal son.
Thomas Hardy and all the writers who explore the tragic dimension of human existence are onto something. We are capable of making tragic decisions. And tragedy happens in our lives even when we don’t. But the idea that we are inevitably destined for a tragic ending is just . . .fiction.
The truth is much more shocking and very much more joyful. In Christ, God has revealed that we are loved in all our humanity, that we are acceptable and even indispensable to God. Christ has brought us the possibility of redemption and the forgiveness of our sins. God has simply refused to go along with Aristotle’s Rules of Tragedy.
God has written her own book—and it’s a much better story than we could ever imagine on our own. No wonder they call it the Good Book.
“Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting.” (Baruch).
Our job is to reach out to our brothers and sisters who are in this wilderness with us. Our work is to embody God’s mercy and spread God’s peace and forgiveness. We are witnesses to and bearers of the good news of Christ.
As the Song of Zechariah says, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.”
“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
(Song of Zechariah, Gospel of Luke).