If you've ever sung the more popular Christmas carols, you've run across the word. If you attend a Christian church in December, you can barely escape it.
The word is Savior. And until this year, it's left me cold.
Yes, I get the Christian theology behind the word. The very name Jesus means save, or something like it. In Jesus, God became a human being to save us.
From what? From our sins, apparently. As the carol says, we are to "rest ye merry, gentlemen" because Christ came "to save us all from Satan's power when we were gone astray."
There's a good deal of truth to be plumbed here. But the term Savior still sounds so abstract.
That changed for me on November 8. Since then, like many other people, I have been sitting with the scorched-earth wreckage of the U.S. presidential campaign--bringing it into my silent prayer and meditation, simply observing the horror and dread I felt initially, letting insights bubble to the surface. This kind of contemplative practice, I've found, often reveals wisdom about what to do next, where to go, what stance to take.
Somewhere in the past month, a raw feeling came up from somewhere in my deepest self: boy, do I need a Savior right now.
It's easy to take that the wrong way. People hear Savior and think of someone who will take all their problems away. With a proper Savior, life could be easy, triumphant, pain-free. Atheists deride that kind of idea as magical thinking, and they're right. It doesn't seem to be the way God works, not very often anyway. So maybe this need for a Savior is just a holdover from childhood, something to be recognized and put aside.
But religious imagery is more useful than that. It often speaks to--and helps us understand--some of the heart's deepest yearnings. Even though God rarely "saves" in deus ex machina fashion, the yearning for a Savior remains. What else might that say?
Maybe it says that we all need an open loop.
So often our lives, individual and collective, become a closed loop. An election delivers fearsome prospects that we cannot change or come to terms with. The pain from the loss of a loved one never seems to go away. Addiction keeps an iron grip on those it has claimed. The legacy of oppression limits generations from making decent lives for their families. In short, we get stuck--in our own history, our own emotional complexes, the dysfunction of our own communities.
Sometimes, in individual cases, the sheer force of will, choice, and effort is enough to "rise above" this. Often it's not. The closed loop becomes a sprung trap, permanently holding us in its grip. We need something, someone, to break through that loop: not necessarily with rescue, but rather with strength we do not have, hope we cannot muster, companionship for the isolation that comes with the closed loop.
Maybe, in short, what the closed loop brings--what we need saving from--is despair.
The Christmas story has a great deal to say about this. It is the story of God's breaking through: not just visiting humanity, but choosing to become human, to live in that closed loop we all encounter, including the inevitable loop of birth and death. In this tale, God becomes powerless, as a baby born to a powerless family in a conquered nation, one closed loop inside another.
It's also a story about the birth of possibility: the possibility that the closed loop is never completely closed, the possibility of God's breaking through at any moment, at least with presence and hope, the possibility that dispels despair.
Anyone who delivers this kind of possibility to our closed-loop lives deserves the name Savior.
Typical of faith narratives, it's not just about God. As people of empathy and compassion, we too hold out the possibility of breaking through the closed loop of others. Our presence with a friend trapped by her loneliness, our work to right the wrongs of past oppression, our twelve-step programs: in all of these, we break through someone else's closed loop and help them regain a sense of the possibility life holds. We get to bring salvation.
One oft-used prayer in the Christian monastic tradition is a hymn attributed to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, speaking about the Savior to come: "In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace."
Who are those "who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death"? All of us. Which means the message of the one called Savior is for all of us too.