The Nativity of the Lord – December 25, 2013

I read a very entertaining editorial* last week; it was a complaint about Christmas. Complaints about Christmas are not unusual. Everyone complains about Christmas; even children, the holiday’s primary beneficiaries, complain about Christmas. I found the editorial entertaining because the author described the current state of Christmas as an unavoidable source of shame.

Specifically, the author’s complaint was about the seasonal proliferation of programs and projects that offer consumers the opportunity to help the less fortunate. If you’ve purchased anything recently, whether in the mall or online, you’ve probably been offered an opportunity to make a charitable donation to a soup kitchen, an outreach to the elderly, an animal rescue foundation or something similar.

The author of the editorial described these charitable causes as a sort of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ bargain. He wrote that he felt guilty when he did not contribute to the cause, regardless of how superficial it was, and he felt disillusioned when he did contribute.

The guilt over not contributing is easy enough to understand. Those who solicit charitable donations are fully convinced that their charitable cause is the most deserving charitable cause in the world. There is a certain amount of guilt that is built into the solicitation. Even the very shallow, who have little or no social conscience, can be moved by these solicitations.

The author’s observations about being disillusioned when he did contribute is a sign of someone who has made an attempt to develop a mature conscience. His disillusionment derived from the fact that he realized how little difference his contribution (or even, the sum total of everyone’s contributions), would actually make. The seasonal fervor to help the disadvantaged fades away very quickly after the end of the calendar year. A brief season of plenty quickly gives way to a perennial state of insufficiency.

The author found that the only lasting result from these seasonal campaigns was to erode the general morality of the nation. These small, once a year, contributions give the false impression of making a difference when they actually make no lasting difference in the lives of the recipients, and cause no lasting change in the consciences of those who give. Both populations revert immediately to their normal states of being ignored, and ignoring, respectively.

I’d like to propose an antidote to our culture’s toxic dependence on quick fixes, feel-good gestures and token attempts to mimic virtue. Two days before that editorial was published Pope Francis made an appeal to all Catholics “not to place ourselves above others, but rather lower ourselves, place ourselves at the service of the poor, make ourselves small and poor with them.” The pope went on to say, “Let us act so that our brothers and sisters never feel alone! Our presence in solidarity by their side expresses, not only through words, but also through the eloquence of deeds that God is close to everyone.”

Any so-called charitable act that doesn’t begin with, and deepen, a sense of repentance in the heart of the giver can have no positive effects for anyone involved. Token gestures of charity don’t have the longevity to cause real change, and making a donation out of pity only serves to reinforce the lack of respect for human dignity that creates categories such as “under-privileged” and “needy.”

When our charitable actions grow out of the realization that we ourselves are the poor, we avoid the danger inherent in any act of giving: we avoid reinforcing the message that some individuals or classes are less important, less powerful, less significant, less influential, less deserving, less blessed, less capable or less accomplished than we are. In short, we avoid the kind of materialistic values that enforce the divide between the lucky few and the struggling many.

At this point, on Christmas, at Mass, you might wish you were hearing more about visions of angels, heavenly Hosannas, the Light that overcomes the darkness, mangers and Holy Infants. If you’re looking for more Christmas spirit, look closer; it’s been there all along.

When God’s Word took human flesh, and was born of the Virgin, God did not choose a noble birth or powerful parents or a position of privilege for the Holy Infant. Jesus was born in an animal barn to poor parents who were not even important enough to be welcomed by the hometown of their ancestors.

The circumstances of Jesus’ birth were not merely modest; they were circumstances of abject poverty and solitary powerlessness. Nor were the circumstances of His birth merely the result of chance; they were the first revelation of the Gospel message. Jesus’ birth in a manger was the first of his parables, a living parable about humility.

On this Feast of the Nativity we look on the Incarnate Son of God, not a conquering hero or powerful King or supernatural visitor, but one of the poorest among us. God’s Word took flesh, and was born into powerlessness and poverty for the purpose of reconciling us with God.

Such poverty on God’s part seems strange, but the alternative would have been entirely repellant. Could one love a god who was condescending with his favors? Could one freely accept reconciliation from a god who made a point of gloating over one’s estrangement from others? Would a god who insisted on majesty and awe ever engender heartfelt loyalty?

A condescending god provokes feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. If we were to accept salvation from this condescending god we would have to do so in abject self-disgust over our (real), moral powerlessness.

Rather, God took on the lowliness of human flesh so that we wouldn’t feel ashamed of our inadequacies. The Word made a humble dwelling in our midst so that we wouldn’t have to hide from our failings. The editorial author whom I mentioned earlier was repulsed by both the condescension of making a token gesture and the moral shallowness of being satisfied by making a token gesture. The Good News of salvation offers a better way to view human nature: the graced recipient of God’s humility.

This is the meaning of the angelic message about “Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us’.” (Matthew 1:23) This is the reason that “the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14)

God wants neither to overpower our freedom nor to gloat over our sins; God wants to offer us reconciliation with one another and with the human condition. God offers redemption to those who are willing to embrace the spiritual poverty of their lives. The God who was born into shameful circumstances offers freedom from shame to those who are willing to make themselves “small and poor” in God’s company.

As easy as God made it for us to hear the message of the Gospel, it remains a difficult message to embrace. None of us enjoys facing our faults and failings, but God’s offer of reconciliation is no token gesture. It’s not a “handout” of some small measure of Grace; it’s the promise of being transformed into the image of the Christ. For those who are humble enough to hear and accept the message, it’s a vision of angels and a Light shining in the darkness. It’s Christmas, “the salvation of our God.” (Isaiah 52:7)

*(‘Giving Back’ to Our Sanctimonious Selves – A ‘random act of kindness’ and other cliches of the season that are all about us – was authored by Barton Swaim, and appeared in the Opinion/Editorial section of the December 20, 2013 edition of the Wall Street Journal.)