Christmas celebrates God’s overwhelming longing to be united with us. So much did God desire this that he became one of us, “pitching his tent among us,” as the Gospel of John puts it (1:14). Yet unity seems a far-off goal not only in our country, but in our church.
Some could even argue that disunity is what God wants. “Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth?” asked Jesus. “No, I tell you, but division” (Lk 12:51). That provocative line seems to indicate that Jesus’ message was not one of uniting but dividing. It could be used as an excuse for manifold divisions evident today. Jesus intended divisions, so is it worth working for unity?
If our answer to that last question is no, then we have misunderstood Christ’s heartfelt desire for unity, which is expressed several times in the New Testament. In a fine new book, Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was, the German Scripture scholar Gerhard Lohfink unpacks that complicated utterance. “Jesus has come to unite the people under God’s rule, and he has indeed brought many people together in this new condition,” writes Father Lohfink. “He has bridged chasms. He has assembled tax collectors and Zealots, sinners and saints, poor and rich at one table. His colorfully mixed band of disciples is a sign of this gathering movement.” The inevitable division, the author points out, comes only from opposition to Jesus’ message, an opposition that may even break families apart. The time for decision, says Jesus, is now; and he expects division only inasmuch as some will fail to make the decision to join him in his mission. But in the end, it is unity with the Father and with one another that Jesus desires.
Heady stuff for Christmas time. But the theme of unity runs like a bright thread through the Advent and Christmas readings. John the Baptist sets aside his personal goals to unite himself with the one whose coming he has foretold. “He must increase and I must decrease” (Jn 3:30) is not only an express ion of the Baptist’s humility, but a call for his followers to join together and follow the Messiah.
At the annunciation, God unites in the most intimate way possible with humanity, divinizing our nature and humanizing his divinity. In the wake of the annunciation, Joseph, facing his initial doubts and what must have been fierce social pressure, cleaves to Mary, with whom he has been united by their betrothal. God does not desire Mary and Joseph to separate, but to cling together as one.
The infant Jesus himself is a physical sign of the union of human and the divine. At his birth, revelation is united with the revealer; the Word is united with the flesh; and a divine desire—the indwelling of God—is united with a most earthly occurrence—a woman giving birth.
During his years of public ministry, Jesus will gather people together. His work with the disciples is as a group. We are so familiar with the call of the first disciples that we forget that Jesus could just as easily have called only one person, say Peter, to help him with his ministry. But he does not. Jesus calls a group, for a variety of reasons.
First, he might have understood the unique talents that each person brought to the table. The tax collector Matthew brought a different set of gifts than the fisherman Peter or Mary, the woman of Magdala. Then, as now, the church needs everyone’s skills, man and woman alike. Second, Jesus most likely grasped the need for human beings to be with one another; faith is not a solitary proposition. Third, Jesus may have recognized that he himself needed people; he craved friendship. And in what would have been an obvious sign, he selects 12 apostles. “What Jesus says now is that he is gathering Israel,” writes Father Lohfink, “he is claiming to do precisely what God will do at the end of time: gather, sanctify and unite Israel.”
The one whose birth is celebrated at Christmas makes specific pleas for unity during his lifetime, seeking to “gather together” people as, in one of the Bible’s tenderest images, “a hen gathers her chicks” (Mt 23:37). “That they all may be one,” Jesus says in John’s Gospel (17:21), expressing the wishes of his Father, with whom he is united as one.
God the Father desires all to be drawn to him. The Prince of Peace desires an end to discord and violence. And the Spirit desires unity so ardently that at Pentecost he enlivens the disciples with the gift of tongues so that the Gospel will be heard not simply by one group of people but by all.
At the first Christmas, God became radically one with humanity. God continues to inflame the human heart with a deep desire for unity. Who does not wish for this? In our desires we hear echoes of God’s longing for the world. The Christmas spirit, then, is more than the giving of gifts or being kind. It is a desire to do the hard work of reconciliation, a willingness to strive for concord, a readiness to cease partisanship and a fervent hope for union with one another, in the name of the one who united his life with our own.