So there I was walking along inside the church and I happened to notice something on the ground. It was thin and black, and when I bent down for closer inspection, there was no doubt what it was: a bullet ant.
The bullet any packs a painful sting. Apparently, it’s the most painful sting in the insect world. I say “apparently” because, although I have seen them now and then, I have, thankfully, never been stung by one. Considering I first came to Ecuador 10 years ago, and that I’ve probably spent a total of 3 and a half years here, that’s not so strange. If I keep coming here, eventually I will probably get stung – but in its own time. There’s no rush!
You can find everything on YouTube. So, if you go there, you can find out about a Brazilian tribe that has a passage rite that includes putting on gloves made of paja loaded up with hundreds of bullet ants. In the ritual, the young man who wants to enter into adulthood has to wear the gloves for 10 minutes. The ritual continues with men from the community accompanying the young man in a circle, with rhythmic dancing and singing. When it’s all done and the kid eventually recovers (the pain from one bullet ant sting can last a day), it’s back to the drawing board. The young man has to pass through that same ritual a total of 20 times!
So, there’s one video of a man from the US who has come to do the ritual out of the blue. He puts on the gloves and survives. But right after taking off the gloves, he leaves the ritual and walks outside. While he has medical assistance measuring his condition, there are about 10 young children following him, watching his every move. And then the big guy begins to cry, doubled over in pain, while all the little kids watch in silence. Afterwards, he begins to lose consciousness, and the local assistant translator tries to keep him awake by holding his attention. Then the assistant says to him, “Let’s go dance,” and leads him back to the ritual. You can then get a glimpse of the value and purpose of the ritual with its dancing and music: keep the guy from passing out!
So why am I talking about this experience? Because this was a man who thought he could just walk into another culture and take on its greatest challenge. The commenters from the States call him a hero. They all miss the whole point.
They miss the reality that those kids watch those rituals at least 20 times a year. The boys dream and prepare for the time when they will go through the ritual, from the moment they are conscious. They miss the whole point that the community has years of preparation for the boys, they miss the point that the ritual itself is fit well for those people and that culture, that the design of the ritual – including the dancing and singing – is all integral to the lives of the young men and the painful experience they go through. They miss the point that the music, its lyrics and rhythm, is something psychologically familiar and soothing to them after witnessing it hundreds of times from their childhood. It is therapeutic for them, while it is likely a culture shock for a stranger from a far different culture and part of the world. The young men can pass through that ritual 20 times because there is so much preparation and therapeutic support built into the culture and community. And a foreigner who thinks they can jump in for a day to test themselves on one painful part has absolutely none of that preparation and support. So, he’s left crying like a baby in front of little boys who will each one day complete the ritual 20 times without crying because they grow into it with the community.
The guy missed the whole point.
The great message of Christmas is that God is one of us. He became one of us. Jesus didn’t just show up one day and get on the cross and show off and get the covenant done with. He started from the very beginning just like every one of us. He grew bit by bit and was prepared and supported, just like every one of us. When it came time for him to do the things for him to do, he brought all that preparation and support to bear. And that’s how he passed through death into life.
The message of Christmas isn’t one of great feats. It’s that God loves us so much to be truly with us, to be truly one of us.
That’s the whole point.
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk 14:11)