Editorial: The Incarnation is both pure grace and a work in progress

This story appears in the Advent 2014 feature series. View the full series.
Pakistani Christian Salamat Masih prepares a Nativity scene for Christmas celebrations in the slums of Islamabad Dec. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)
Pakistani Christian Salamat Masih prepares a Nativity scene for Christmas celebrations in the slums of Islamabad Dec. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)

by NCR Editorial Staff

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Theology can seem as distant from reality as a greeting card is from the terror of that first Christmas: a homeless couple with newborn, the sound of hoofbeats, the slaughter of innocents, desert flight to alien status in a strange land.

But theology is all we have to articulate a different outcome for our reality, so shadowed by trouble and rumors of more trouble to come, one world collapsing under its own weight with no sign yet of another world emerging more attentive to the needs of basic human community.

Christmas proclaims the Incarnation, that God is among us, one of us. It is a theological mystery so all-encompassing it is invisible, like DNA, the organizing principle of evolution itself. To be is to be in God, of God, for God. Jesus arrives not to bring this but to reveal it.

Our humanity has a divine destiny. Our hunger for identity, purpose and meaning is the answer to a question seeded in our consciousness, reflected in our dignity, grounded in the image and likeness of God. It challenges any idea that history is about winners and losers, the survival of the fittest. It insists that every life matters, not because it can be monetized, but because it is essential to the wholeness and ultimate glory of God's body in the world, the Christ of Christmas.

Every life matters, in every city, enclave, village, favela, barrio, slum or refugee camp. Every life lost diminishes us all. Every death before its time, every child born into poverty, denied basic health care, food, clean water, education, opportunity, impoverishes us all. The life we save is our own, a member of the one family we need to be fully human.

We hold this mystery up against the front page, each day's litany of self-destruction. But, as church, we are in the world, not against it, and our only interface is this:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.

Gaudium et Spes, "Joy and Hope," are the message of Christmas to a weary world, a rallying cry and gathering place for anyone eager for a fresh start, healing and renewal toward a future that is more fair, humane, respectful of every life, its gifts and potential welcomed and nurtured.

But it is not without cost. For Jesus, pioneer and precursor of our divine future, the way forward met a gauntlet of lethal blows that protect every status quo, the logic that it is always better for one person to die than bring down the system. That one has been multiplied by millions in wars waged with expendable lives and collateral carnage under the wheels of history. Jesus formed community among the crucified of history and there proclaimed that love trumps death, and that reconciliation will reclaim the fragments of a broken world.

The Incarnation is both pure grace and a work in progress. Christmas has yet to find a home in many hearts or a voice within the virtual search engines that read our desires and mirror our wants. Advent is our annual wakeup call, to not be seduced by false gods and the many pseudo salvations competing for our souls.

How can we make this theology real? Find your circle of like minds and shared values, whether it is your faith community, parish church, book club, extended family, or just a friend. Name the deepest question you carry, your greatest concern, your hopes and doubts. Then wrap these up in the Incarnation. Not just the doctrine, but your own deep sense that you are never alone, have always been in the company of God.

Whatever your past failures or future anxieties, God is always in the present moment, and all things are possible. Let this blessed assurance be the first gift of Christmas, to yourself and to everyone you love or will love in the days to come.

A different world is possible. A different world is necessary. We are in this together, the one body of humanity, animated by one Holy Spirit, a living, breathing solidarity of shared purpose, God among us, in us, for us. It is a mystery so much bigger than any of us, but needs each of us to be complete.

A version of this story appeared in the Dec 19, 2014-Jan 1, 2015 print issue under the headline: Pure grace and a work in progress.

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