Do you remember where you were when you first heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor? The assassination of JFK? The fall of the World Trade Center? There's a ground-shaking quality about epic events that spears all hearts and inspires grandiose rhetoric. This changes everything, people say; our world will never be the same. We often overreact when dramatic events play out on the world stage (perhaps it's a form of applause). But sometimes it's true: Our world has changed. The event may be the inauguration of a new age or the exclamation point of a developing trend, but things will never be the same.
The event that really changed everything, which we celebrate this month, was notably undramatic. Except for angel sightings in the sky and a single wandering star, it looked like an ordinary birth. Movies and artwork almost always picture the scene at night, the better to illuminate with a heavenly glow. But it just as likely occurred in the daytime, with the clamor of street vendors and the squeal of animals masking Mary's cries.
The world before Christ was ruled by cycles: the turn of seasons, the rhythm of tides, the rotation of stars. The A.D. world was linear-beginning at Creation by Christ, leading to redemption in Christ, ending with the return of Christ. The post-Christian world pictures the universe beginning with a sudden rapid expansion that will someday reach its limit, collapse on its own space, and shrink to the infinite point at which it began.
One of the most popular literary genres today, especially among young people, is dystopian fiction. This is the portrayal of a shrinking future in which the line of progress has broken, due to total warfare or environmental carelessness or unexplained disaster. The old order has collapsed and pockets of humanity here and there struggle to put the pieces back together.
In the real world, we feel a persistent uneasiness: How precarious is this free world we've built? What will it take to send us all sliding back to the law of the jungle? How deep must we scratch the veneer of any modern to expose the blue-painted pagan beneath?
Not very deep, I'm thinking. But it would be a mistake to fall into the dystopian anxiety of the times. The universe may indeed contract someday (think of God rolling up the heavens like a scroll), but history will not. There is no going back to a pagan world.
That world had a certain guileless ignorance about it. When Naaman the Syrian met the one true God, he was allowed to capture Yahweh in a load of dirt and continue escorting his king to the Temple of Rimmon (2 Kings 5:17-19). When foreigners colonized Samaria, they were besieged by lions until a priest was dispatched to teach them "the law of the god of the land" (2 Kings 17:26). Even the sophisticated Athenians saw fit to build a monument to an unknown deity, which Paul used to confront the agnostics on Mars Hill. No more groping after God: God has come to us. No more excuses, for He "will judge the world in righteousness through the Man whom He has appointed" (Acts 17:31).
The way back is closed, as if an angel with a flaming sword were standing guard. The ancient gods have dropped their masks to reveal the demons beneath. Humanity can't reorganize itself on a tribal model or polytheistic practice because Christ has planted Himself squarely in our midst like a bronze serpent on a post.
That's bad news for the unbeliever. But for those who look to Him, it changes everything. We don't know what lies ahead, but it will not be a return to endless cycles or expansion and decline. However difficult, the future will be progress-a triumphant procession, in fact (2 Corinthians 2:14). Silently and scarcely noticed, the Infinite has slipped into the bloodstream of history, and the world, truly, will never be the same.
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