Our Christmas cover this year, painted by Ansgar Holmberg, C.S.J., depicts children from around the world adoring the infant Jesus. When Sister Ansgar first mailed us a rough draft of this painting, she wondered: Should Jesus be receiving the world from us, or should he be offering it to us?
Christ does both. The world and its gifts are given over to humankind to use, to care for and to delight in. But we are also asked to make something of the world, to help God in bringing about the kingdom and to become, in that wonderful theological phrase, co-creators with the God who continues his creative work. In his new book, Following the Way, the theologian Gerald O’Collins, S.J., commenting on the parables of the sower and the mustard seed, puts it this way: The coming of the kingdom is totally, completely and utterly God’s work. At the same time, the coming of the kingdom is totally, completely and utterly the work of human beings.
While we join God in his work, God joins us. And on the first Christmas, God joined us in a most remarkable way. The mystery of the Incarnation is the mystery of the most inaccessible, distant and remote becoming the most accessible, close and personal.
This Christmas, only a few months after the terrorist attacks on our country on Sept. 11, the message is an even more urgent one for humankind to hear: God became human. And in taking on our humanity, God, in the person of Jesus, experienced the joy of human life: growing up in a loving household, finding friendships among people in his town, patiently learning a craft and celebrating at weddings and parties. He would also have experienced the peace of human life: exploring the traditions of his family’s religion, reading the Scriptures, rejoicing in the natural world, discovering prayer and meditation, enjoying a deep relationship with God the Father and, finally, preaching the word of God.
But Jesus would also have experienced the sorrow of human life: seeing the death of family members and friends, watching the poor labor under oppression, suffering illness and pondering over the seeming arbitrariness of earthly life. Jesus of Nazareth understood what it meant to suffer and, perhaps more poignantly, understood what it meant to see others suffer.
In him, therefore, we are presented with not only a companion in our trialsa man well acquainted with grief, in the prophetic words of Isaiah, but also a model of suffering. In the Gospels, especially in Mark, we encounter a man who grasps that suffering is part of human existence and who strives to bear it with patience and humility.
But to treasure this insight is not to favor a sort of doormat spirituality, which delights in suffering for suffering’s sake. For the message of the Incarnation does not begin on Christmas morning and end on Good Friday. Rather, Christianity finds its deepest meaning in its deepest mystery: the Resurrection. The Christian way always points beyond suffering and into new life. Moreover, Christ shows us the way to confront the suffering of others. When confronted with suffering, his first response was not to ignore it, but to heal and to console. He provides us with the model par excellence of compassion.
The Gospel of St. Luke, in particular, stresses that with the Incarnation God also joins us definitively in human history. Jesus of Nazareth is born, we are told, in the days of Augustus Caesar, while Quirinius was governor of Syria. The story of Jesus of Nazareth, therefore, is not a charming fable that takes place once upon a time, set apart from time and the concerns of the day. No, Jesus is born into a specific time and place, with distinct limitations and definite possibilities: a place where political unrest was common, a time when many awaited the coming of a messiah, an era in which violence was a way of life. God was able to work in and through human history, and we should not doubt that he is able to do so today.
The mystery of the Incarnation cannot be captured in a few wordsor in any number of words. (As someone has said, if we were meant to understand God in the abstract, Mary wouldn’t have had a baby; she would have written a book.) But suffice it to say that at this Christmas, when so many fear for the world, it is good for Christians to remember that the one who asks us to care for his world is also the one who made the world and the one who joins us in the world. And though it may seem out of place during this season, Christians can surely respond to the good news of the Incarnation with a word normally reserved for Eastertide: Alleluia!