In October, Forbes magazine, which has something of a penchant for making lists – Top-earning dead celebrities! Best cities for singles! – determined that Russia’s once and current (and likely future) president, Vladimir Putin, is the world’s most powerful person. It was an obvious choice, as Putin outfoxed the Americans and Europeans both at home and abroad and is now at the height of his power, but no less remarkable for being that. The No. 1 position on the power list is customarily the U.S. president, but not this year. Power is there for taking, and Putin took it.
Yet two figures this year drew attention for not taking power, but freely relinquishing it.
In February, Pope Benedict XVI did something no legitimately-elected pope has ever done without being pressured to do so – abdicate. In December, Nelson Mandela’s death brought renewed attention to his remarkable life. He was widely praised not only for becoming South Africa’s first black president, but for being one of the few African presidents to leave office voluntarily. In a continent where presidents-for-life are the norm, he left by free choice, not by death, or coup, or exile.
At Christmastime, Christians mark the greatest relinquishing: the omnipotent creator who chose to enter his creation as a helpless baby, the infinite accepting the finitude of time and space, the eternal constraining himself in history. At this time of seasonal carols, it is good to remember that the most ancient Christian hymn of all, recorded for us by St. Paul in the book of Philippians, was not about stars and stables and silent nights, but about what had never been imagined in the entire history of man’s religious thought, namely that God was not God because of his power, but because of his mercy, and because of his love:
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)
Every knee does not now bow, nor every tongue now confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, but what is remarkable is that before Jesus, no knee had ever bent, no tongue had ever confessed a god like this. The ancient world was not short of religion; its pantheon was full of gods. There were major gods and minor gods, gods of the natural forces and the seasons, gods of war and love, gods of health and of death, gods who fought amongst themselves. What united these diverse deities was that they had power, more power than man. In order to avoid falling afoul of that power, man had to placate those gods – even to the point of offering human sacrifice, as was found throughout the ancient world and among the great civilizations of the new world.
To be divine was to have power. To lose that power was, like Prometheus, to be punished, to become a lesser god, or worse, to be reduced to mere human status. In contrast, those who had great power in the ancient world – the Pharaoh of Egypt, the Caesar of Rome – styled themselves precisely as divinities, escaping the limits of humanity to become gods. The first pages of the Torah indicate that this was the original temptation, for the serpent says at the beginning: “You will be like God.”
Into this world, the Philippians’ hymn proposes a God who does not grasp at his power like other gods of human imagination, but will set it aside, sacrificing himself for the creation that he loves, and for the souls that he will save. The great good news which Christians propose to the world at Christmas is that at the heart of all reality, of the eternal, of the infinite, is not the grasping after power, but rather the sacrifice of power for the sake of the weak. The world speaks of power, but Christmas speaks of mercy.
At the National Post, we write many words about the pursuit and use and abuse of power and those who wield it. Yet at Christmas comes the happy news that power is not the final word. The final word belongs to peace, to mercy, to love. To our readers, we therefore wish a Merry Christmas!
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