Christmas is a reminder that we live in a certain sort of war zone. And the suffering of those who live in war zones with bombings, physical violence, and killing is a reminder that the deepest roots of all conflicts are spiritual, not simply political.
“God”, wrote C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, “has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form.” What was the purpose of this divine invasion behind enemy lines? To simply teach? To punish mankind? No, Lewis wrote, Christians “think the main thing He came to earth to do was to suffer and be killed.” That is true, of course, but there is more—as Lewis himself noted.
God became man in order to reveal the truth about both God and man. “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light”, stated the fathers of the Second Vatican Council. “For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.” (Gaudium et spes, 22).
Those “aforementioned truths” include what the Catholic Church teaches about the nature of God, the work of the Incarnate Word, the mission of the Church, the place of the State and human government, and the divine vocation of men. The Church “has been taught by divine revelation and firmly teaches that man has been created by God for a blissful purpose beyond the reach of earthly misery. … For God has called man and still calls him so that with his entire being he might be joined to Him in an endless sharing of a divine life beyond all corruption. … The root reason for human dignity lies in man’s call to communion with God” (GS, 18, 19). This is possible because the Son, by becoming flesh and dwelling among us (Jn 1:14), has established his Kingdom. But not a Kingdom of this world, as he explained to Pontius Pilate, and not a Kingdom to be enforced by violence, oppression, and death.
The great temptation—as seen even in the Gospels—is to establish the Kingdom by force and to establish it today, on earth, by the use of temporal, coercive force. The desire for utopia today becomes the logical creation of the killing fields tomorrow. And as irreligion becomes the new religion of the supposedly non-religious, forms of totalitarianism are both spawned and inspired. “History attests that religion has not encroached upon the temporal sphere,” observed Abp. Fulton Sheen in 1946, “but rather jealous temporal rulers have invaded the spiritual. Sometimes these rulers were kings and princes, even so-called ‘Catholic defenders of the faith.’ Today, they are dictators.” These various movements of temporal madness—sometimes obscured in the most mundane forms, sometimes demonstrated in madness made mandatory—are apocalyptic. Not in the Christian sense of the much-maligned word, but in the sense of forcing the will of—take your pick—the State, the Caliphate, or the System upon the whole.
The word “will” is key here, for these apocalyptic ideologies are not interested in truth or even reality as it is, but in power. Even those that give lip service to the supernatural are obsessed with will and power—a point made brilliantly by Pope Benedict XVI in his Regensburg Address, which was largely misrepresented and, I suspect, unread. There are those, put simply, who believe that if God willed idolatry, murder, and rape to be “good” and necessary, then so be it.
Which brings me to a remarkable Christmas homily given yesterday morning by the Anglican archbishop Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. I know relatively little about Welby, but this homily is exceptional, for he understands that the apocalypse is actually a matter of profound and radical joy. Welby stated, in part:
In the events of Jesus birth, Herod and the shepherds are defined by their response to Jesus. Today, we are each defined by our response to Jesus. Even more extraordinarily, Christmas defines God. Here is the most startling of claims; this baby, this Jesus, who is God, defines God. God is self-defined as pure love, love celebrated in angel light and seen in human vulnerability, love that is indifferent to status, and that hates injustice, love the news of which is borne on the heavenly songs, but which is seen in poverty and insecurity.
What the shepherds glimpsed that silent night outside Bethlehem was an apocalypse, which means an uncovering of God’s final purpose for all the universe. …
Today, across the Middle East, close to the area in which the angels announced God’s apocalypse, ISIS and others claim that this is the time of an apocalypse, an unveiling created of their own terrible ideas, one which is igniting a trail of fear, violence, hatred and determined oppression. Confident that these are the last days, using force and indescribable cruelty, they seem to welcome all opposition, certain that the warfare unleashed confirms that these are indeed the end times. They hate difference, whether it is Muslims who think differently, Yazidis or Christians, and because of them the Christians face elimination in the very region in which Christian faith began. This apocalypse is defined by themselves and heralded only by the angel of death.
The shepherds see the truth, eternal, unwavering, divine truth, defined not by them, but by God: it was truth for them then, it is truth with us today. Goodness knows what they were expecting, but what they find is a new-born child – tiny, helpless and vulnerable. Yet they bow down in worship. The shepherds get this apocalypse.
Herod too gets this apocalypse. He senses that this tiny, helpless, vulnerable, utterly normal child is the ultimate threat to his power and authority. He is right: this child is the ultimate judge of all human power and authority. Having heard about the birth of Jesus, Herod responds in devastating destruction. He tries to annihilate the apocalypse of God. Force meets love, and love has to flee into Egypt and returns to ordinary life and eventually to a cross and an empty tomb, conquering the world. At Christmas we are confronted with God’s form of power, which judges all our forms of power.
“Herod tries to annihilate the apocalypse of God.” So many other names and movements could be added to the name of Herod. Power divorced from truth seeks to destroy who man is and what man is made for. That is why Cardinal Robert Sarah made this remarkable statement at the recent Synod:
A theological discernment enables us to see in our time two unexpected threats (almost like two “apocalyptic beasts”) located on opposite poles: on the one hand, the idolatry of Western freedom; on the other, Islamic fundamentalism: atheistic secularism versus religious fanaticism. To use a slogan, we find ourselves between “gender ideology and ISIS”. Islamic massacres and libertarian demands regularly contend for the front page of the newspapers. … From these two radicalizations arise the two major threats to the family: its subjectivist disintegration in the secularized West through quick and easy divorce, abortion, homosexual unions, euthanasia etc. (cf. Gender theory, the ‘Femen’, the LGBT lobby, IPPF). On the other hand, the pseudo-family of ideologized Islam which legitimizes polygamy, female subservience, sexual slavery, child marriage etc. (cf. Al Qaeda, Isis, Boko Haram)
So, we all live in a war zone, and the battle for our souls and the souls around is real—no matter how distracted we can be by material comforts, technological wonders, and political platforms. “History is not just a record of different things that have happened to ancient peoples”, explained Abp. Sheen, “it is also a record of the same things happening to new people.” (Which means, I should quickly interject, that news and journalism can never be just about “facts” but must be about transcendent truth and foundational principles.) The Son has come, but he is also coming again—and he comes to us today as well. For, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux preached 800 years ago, Christ comes to people, against people, and into people.
Into people? Well, yes, that is exactly what baptism is: “Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ” (CCC 1272). We are called to be the children of God, for this sharing in the divine life—theosis, deification, divinization, incorporation—is the great birthright of those who accept the Incarnation, are cleansed of their sins, and embrace the way of the Cross. This is truly apocalyptic—that is, revelatory:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Rom 8:18-25)
As Lewis understood, we can “go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man.” Christmas is the invasion; it is the apocalypse. And it continues, thank God, even as people continue to flee or even assault the light from the cave in Bethlehem. Thus Sheen lamented in his 1935 book on the Mystical Body of Christ, the “great tragedy of history is not that men should fall, but that they should fail to rise to the full realization of their vocation as children of God.”
We, for our part, must worship and obey, as Welby rightly insists: “The shepherds went and worshipped. Herod sought to kill. Today’s Herods, ISIS and the like around the world in so many faiths, propose false apocalypses. But you and I are called to respond in worship and transforming, world changing obedience, both as individuals, and together, to this revelation of the baby that defines God, for it is our response to Jesus that defines us.” Amen.