“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” (Isa. 7:14 NKJV)
My biennial reading of The Lord of the Rings trilogy has coincided with Advent this year. In October, three young friends of mine—Zelalem, Meheret, and Dawit—right out of college, were killed in a bus accident in Ethiopia while on a mission to an unreached people group. Their deaths were a heavy blow to the leaders of the mission movement that Gayll and I have been working with for four years and a heavy blow to our hearts as well. This tragedy highlighted, for all of us, the weakness of God’s people in the face of evil and suffering. It put a pall over our upcoming November training and consulting trip to Ethiopia. So, I turned once again to Tolkien to restore my own heart and to prepare to minister to my dispirited friends.
Tolkien’s epic helps me meditate on the way the story of God works. Because this year’s reading coincides with Advent, for the first time ever, my eyes have been opened to see Tolkien’s employment of the tiny hobbits as his meditation on the mind-blowing, unbelievable mystery of the Holy family as God’s secret weapon of redemption. Over and over in my reading I have been brought to tears as the hobbits and their love for one another prove to be the secret weapons to bring down the evil empire of Sauron, Tolkien’s metaphor for absolute evil. Frodo volunteers to take the One Ring deep into the enemy’s territory to destroy it when the powerful and mighty are unwilling or unable. Merry and Eowyn, partners in redemption like Jesus and Mary, destroy the Lord of the Nine (Sauron’s military champion), when no warrior could achieve such a victory. And Sam, without any qualification or skill other than sacrificial love for his friend Frodo, is Tolkien’s ultimate hero—the only reason Frodo ever reaches Mount Doom. The parallel between the hobbits and the holy family is no accident of storytelling. Tolkien even notes in The Return of the King’s appendix that the One Ring was destroyed on March 25, which is the Catholic Church’s date for Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary and its date for the crucifixion of Jesus, in 33 A.D.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
Copyright: Lorraine Brevig, used with permission
No, this is not my fan piece about Tolkien’s masterpiece. It is my meditation on the unfathomable ways of God in the midst of my grief and sense of smallness in the face of evil and death. Christmas and Advent, for even the most dedicated Christ followers, can become merely the warm and cozy season for friends and family, blockbuster films, warm cocoa, the stress and pleasure of gift giving/receiving, benevolence to the poor, and—if we ruthlessly carve out the time—some recollection of the Christian story in worship and spiritual practices. When all the apparatus and accretions of American Christmas are stripped away, if they ever can be, what is left is the overturning of all that our world has ever thought or believed about power, heroism, salvation, family, children, the gods, the good life, and virtue.
The cult of superhero worship in postmodern America and the acceptance of materialistic ‘Xmas’ are, in a real way, a return to the pre-Christian world’s values and fantasies—strength, fame, and beauty are most highly prized, wealth can achieve anything, humility and sacrificial love are admired but not practiced, and militant superheroes can dispatch the problem of evil through redemptive violence. These pagan values infect my soul as well. I, too, am an American. So, when my young friends are killed, or political gangs hijack our republic (and even our churches), when I am sick and growing grey-headed, when the future looks bleak for the advance of the Gospel, my flesh cries out for a superhero Jesus to return, or at least superhero Holy Spirit power. But then, reading the Advent scriptures along with The Lord of the Rings, I have been reawakened from this diabolical spell with the smelling salts of God’s world-shaking truth. God sees our tragic, evil-infected world and he selects as his superhero team a teenage girl, her baby, and the confused adoptive father whose only superpower is being a carpenter. Yes, Jesus does grow up to be the Word made flesh full of the Spirit’s power, but he triumphs by loving his enemies to the point of death on the Cross. He selects twelve deeply flawed disciples to lead his movement. He does not use the 12 legions of angels at his command to bring down Rome and the corrupt religious leaders of his day.
The joy of Advent for me this year is re-entering the subversive story of God through Tolkien’s classic: the story in which humility and sacrificial love and friendship are more powerful than armies and strength and propaganda. The story of God is a story in which, no matter how weak or unimportant his people are, there is no reason to give up hope. The story of God is a story in which sacrificial love is more powerful than hedge fund managers, or military violence, or A.I.-crafted propaganda campaigns. Because of the Advent and Easter story, the deaths of my three young friends are not a waste, or even a tragedy. Jesus speaks of his righteous death as a seed that will grow up and bear much fruit. This is my confident hope for my missional friends in Ethiopia and for their grieving families. So join me in celebrating and worshiping the anti-superhero God, the God of J.R.R. Tolkien, of Mary and her baby, the God of Zelalem, Meheret, and Dawit.
- What works of art (music, fiction, visual art) help reawaken you to the story of God?
- How might God be revealing himself to you this Advent? What recent events in your life might God be inviting you to use, to see the Advent and Christmas season anew?
Mark Phifer-Houseman has been married to his best friend and hero, Gayll, for thirty-two years. He has been enthralled by Jesus since sophomore year in college. That pursuit led to twenty-four years of ministry to college students and eight years as The River’s staff director. He currently serves as a leadership trainer and coach, primarily among under-resourced leaders in the Global South.
Notable accomplishments include: clinging to Jesus while disabled for fourteen years with chronic neuropathy and following Gayll’s leadership in adopting their four children from Ethiopia in 2003. He loves to see young people come alive to God and boldly follow their calling, communities living out the radical love of God, and families and churches thriving (including his own). He's a podcast addict: This American Life, Snap Judgement, Invisibilia, Hidden Brain, and Radiolab are a few faves. He's certain that food in the age to come will be mainly Ethiopian, Indian, Korean, Chinese, and Mexican (not necessarily in that order). He has been led astray by dark chocolate.