Look, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves. ~Matthew 10:16
One of the topics in theology that is of ongoing interest to me is the way in which aspects of the Christian faith can be found in other cultures and religions. The early church theologian Justin Martyr, so named because he was martyred because of his faith, referred to these echoes of truth in other societies as “seeds of the Word”. While I take the Scriptures and the Word of God, Jesus Christ, to be the only complete revelation of God’s self to us, I also acknowledge that there are aspects of truth in other belief systems. There are many such examples of Christian beliefs overlapping in other societies. Take, for instance, the example of ancient Latin America’s belief in a god who shares more than just a little similarity to Jesus Christ.
William Dyrness, in his recent book Insider Jesus, notes that the “precolonial Náhuatl culture” which is “centered in what is now Mexico…describes the original belief in the god Quetzalcóatl, which in the Náhuatl language means ‘feathered serpent.'” 1 In quoting Elsa Tamez, a Costa Rican theologian, the book goes on to elaborate that
The core of this story relates how the God Quetzalcóatl struggles against the lord of death and his reign so that a new humanity might rise into existence; the struggle is taken to such an extent that Quetzalcóatl injures Self in order to give humanity life. 2
This sounds curiously like the biblical message of Jesus who, as God, not only gave up his position in heaven to come to earth so that he might live alongside his creation and to reveal Himself as God-in-flesh, but he also gave up his life onthe cross so that humanity might be baptized in his death and begin to live a new way of life. While I could easily make this post about the celebration of Easter, I actually wish to connect it to Advent, when we reflect on the time leading up to Israel’s waiting for a Messiah and which culminates in the celebration of Christmas, believing that God’s promise to Israel was fulfilled in Jesus Christ when God incarnated himself in the virgin Mary.
As I did some casual research on the “feathered serpent” god of Mesoamerica, I came to find that incarnation is central to both Jesus and Quetzalcóatl. In at least a few different versions of the myths of Quetzalcóatl, he is portrayed as being born of the virgin Chimalman. 3 And if that doesn’t sound familiar, Dryness elaborates on the mythological meaning of the term “feathered serpent” when he states that “‘Feather’ is a symbol for the heavenly realm, and ‘serpent’ is a symbol of the earthly realm, so this ‘feathered serpent’ represents an interesting representation of an incarnational form – ascending and descending.” 4
So what does all this talk about scales and feathers have to do with Advent and Christmas beyond the obvious similarities between Christ and Quetzalcóatl, interesting though they are? As I was reflecting on the implications of the similar elements, I was reminded of another biblical passage. It is quoted in the epigraph of this post and I will repeat it here. First, some context. Jesus is about to send out the 12 disciples to announce that the kingdom of God has come near. As he does, he tells them, “As you go, announce this: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, drive out demons. You have received free of charge; give free of charge” (Matthew 10: 7-8).
In essence, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the presence of God has come to walk among his people. First, he will be revealed to the Israelites, as the disciples are about to do, and then to the Gentiles, or to the rest of the ancient world. Whereas access to God could only come through the priests’ sacrifices to God in the temple, now God and his presence and kingdom power have come to be among the peoples of the world. This is not just good news, this is great news, but people don’t know it yet. However, people would rather keep living under the old system of sacrifices, rites and rituals then accept this new order where the presence and grace of God is pure gift, “free of charge”. And they would rather keep others under that system, particularly the Pharisees, the religious elite, and the Roman officials. Their whole way of life and being “propped up”, so to speak, is dependent on the old religious and political systems as found in the then-current “elements of the world”. 5
This is the context, then, when Jesus tells the disciples in Matthew 10:16, “Look, I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves.” They will face rejection and persecution. They will be actively and passively opposed. They will be mocked and scorned. And yet, I believe it to be the case that it is in the example of Jesus himself, who “descended from heaven” to live on earth that the disciples could find the strength and power to be as gentle as doves and as wise as serpents. It is in the very incarnation and life of Christ, the God-man, that we see heaven and earth, feathers and scales, meet. Jesus is the ultimate Feathered Serpent. And this is what the kingdom of heaven is about. In the incarnation of Christ, all of creation is being renewed. Hence, the power the disciples receive to heal, cleanse, drive out, and raise the dead.
It’s not just our souls that God redeems and renews, it’s all things, including body and soul, institutions and powers, calling and culture. To believe in just a spiritual gospel is what is called gnosticism, and which the early church deemed a heresy. It is the idea that the physical and tangible aspects of God’s creation, which he called good, is of little significance, or worse, evil. I don’t know about you, but I’m not so arrogant as to call something that God labeled “good” as being “evil”. Corrupted, yes. Sinful, maybe. But not evil. So, let us step out again this season and announce the kingdom of heaven. Let us, in our everyday lives bring about the healing of reconciliation, the the cleansing of society, the driving out of evil, and the raising of that which has died, if not literally then at least figuratively. Let us be feathered serpents for a world that is groaning and longing for redemption.
1 William A. Dyrness, Insider Jesus: Theological Reflections on New Christian Movements (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016), 76.
2 Elsa Tamez, “Reliving Our Histories: Racial and Culturual Revelations of God,” in New Vision for the Americas: Religious Engagement and Social Transformation, ed. David Batstone (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994), 33-35, cited in Dyrness, Insider Jesus, 76. The idea that God is creating a new humanity is often elaborated on in discussions of ecclesiology, the theology of the church of God. I won’t pretend that the church doesn’t fail in it’s mission of living out a new humanity. In fact, I need look no further than the next page of Dyrness’s book to find evidence of the church’s failing than when Spain and the conquistadors arrived. We all know the story of how the Europeans treated the indigenous Americans, both in North and South America. However, it is also the case that the relation of church and culture is a complex one, such that what appears to be Christian violence is often a perversion of the gospel by cultural forces in the form of politics and economics. To read an accessible book about religious violence from cultural and historical perspectives, I suggest Meic Pearse’s The Gods of War. And to read a somewhat weighty tome on what the new humanity ought to look like, and which the Spirit is always in the process of forming through those who have been baptized in Christ’s death and resurrection, I highly recommend Peter Leithart’s Delivered from the Elements of the World.
3 “Quetzalcoatl.” Wikipedia.org. Web. Accessed on 10 December 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quetzalcoatl>. As an aside, the Wikipedia article also mentions the Latter Day Saints belief that Jesus Christ came to visit the ancient American people after his death and resurrection. I do not adhere to that belief, but rather find it more compelling that myths that seem to foreshadow the events of the New Testament can be perceived as just that: myths. However, like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, I follow their lead in that these myths resonate with people in other societies because, in Christ, we have the “myth made fact”. In other words, the pre-Christian myths of gods being incarnated and sacrificed find their fulfillment in the historical events of the gospel. I don’t have time or space to cover the historical case for Christ as contrasted to the myths of other societies, but the concepts of “seeds of the Word” and “myth made fact” should provide some food for thought.
4 Dyrness, Insider Jesus, 171.
5 I’m summarizing aspects of Peter Leithart’s Delivered from the Elements of the World. However, I am not exactly citing it as I am not directly relying on it for what i am writing.