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Recognizing the Incarnation in a Broken World

by Angel Valdez

Kevin writes from Sugar Land. He and his wife, Katie, and their teenage and adult children – Brenna, Dan, Aaron, and Abby — volunteer several Saturdays a month at Casa Juan Diego.

If Advent and Christmas 2020 are like the rest of the year, we can expect the celebrations of the season to be restrained, maybe overshadowed by fatigue. There may even be a temptation to ignore Christmas time amid concern about contagion and money. This liturgical season’s promise of “Joy to the World” seem so wildly out of synch with our year that it is worthwhile to recall the meaning of the Incarnation as lived in 2020.

The Christmas story is so familiar – in Luke’s Gospel, we get the whole pageant of Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem, lodging in a manger, Mary’s firstborn wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger amid angelic choirs – we forget how great the event is until we get to it. Consider how frequently the Christmas readings bring a smile.

This year, the celebration of Jesus’ birth clashes with the world in which much is wrong – starting with a pandemic. The manifestation of the Incarnation reminds us that (1) God has entered into the world to share our life; and (2) that Jesus’ birth always clashes with our culture. We implicitly expect that if God were truly here, things would be better, and we might erroneously conclude that the disfunction in our world is evidence that God is not really present with us.

In order to resolve the apparent contradiction of God’s presence in a world that is not right, we could focus on the unrecognized feast of the Christmas season. We jump merrily along from Christmas to Holy Family to Epiphany to Baptism without really noticing that there is a giant gap in that sequence between Epiphany and Baptism; it comes as a shock to recognize that most of Jesus’ life had no public character and certainly no overt claims to His God-head.

That God thought it worthwhile to waste 30 years of his humanity in “daily life” is a powerful endorsement of normal human life. For those who would claim that Jesus came just to die for our sins, it is striking how slow he was to get started on this salvific mission. Rather, Jesus spent the bulk of his life privately, presumably paying taxes to an oppressing power, walking some 70 miles to Jerusalem for Passover, working, and praying. His private life is frequently ignored, but Nazareth-time corresponds to how God is with us now – present in a messed-up world.

Even once Jesus began His public ministry, the number of people who needed His help exceeded His reach. In order to extend His personal touch to more people, Jesus got volunteers to (1) encourage people with the promise that the kingdom of God is at hand; and (2) heal the sick. These volunteers were to join a household – staying with them, eating with them (Lk. 10); in these directions we see that Jesus is getting his volunteers to act like He does – helping those in need, but doing so on a personal level. And this willingness to use volunteers to bring His touch to people also corresponds to His work the world today.

God is incarnate in the world in different ways in 2020 than He was at His birth (though even after His Ascension, He is still Incarnate). As we celebrate the Incarnation, it is also worth celebrating these forms in which God is present in the world: God has chosen to live within us in the Holy Spirit; and God lives in the Church; and God is enfleshed in our reception of the Eucharist. These incarnations are not as complete as the one we celebrate at Christmas, and yet this presence has never left God’s people – all people – in the last 2000 years.

And, we find, almost against our will that we carry God into our world. Now the contradiction of God’s presence in a muddled world feels quite different because the question becomes very personal – how am I bringing the Lord into the world? How do I stand against the ways in which the world is not right? How am I standing up for justice? for love?

This responsibility to carry Christ with us means that Christ’s coming in 2020 may be in the context of the manger or in the context of my neighbor. Both ways, I need Christ’s comings; and I also need to be a means through which Christ goes to others.

Houston Catholic Worker, October-December 2020, Vol. XL, No. 4.