Icon of Nativity (us.fotolia.com | Renáta Sedmáková)
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 moreas 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).
"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.
great temptationas seen even in the Gospelsis 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 madnesssometimes obscured in the
most mundane forms, sometimes demonstrated in madness made mandatoryare
apocalyptic. Not in the Christian sense of the much-maligned word, but
in the sense of forcing the will oftake your pickthe 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 powera 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:
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. ...
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.
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.
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:
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)
we all live in a war zone, and the battle for our souls and the souls
around is realno 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 againand 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.
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 lifetheosis, deification, divinization, incorporationis
the great birthright of those who accept the Incarnation, are cleansed
of their sins, and embrace the way of the Cross. This is truly
apocalypticthat is, revelatory:
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
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.