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Christmas and Precarity

What we celebrate in our Christmas Masses is true. God has entered human history in the Word made flesh, the Second Person of the Triune God.

As Jennifer Newsome Martin, put it in her study of the work of Charles Péguy, French poet of the Incarnation, in Communio this year, “With the resounding fact of et homo factus est at the feast of Christmas, histoire(history, story) has come to earth as flesh in the infant God. Here at this axis eternity is made temporal, the spiritual is made carnal.”

As we meditate on the mystery of the Incarnation that we celebrate each Christmas and on the extension in time of the Lord’s presence in the Church, in the Eucharist, we realize that life, Christian life, is precarious. In his wisdom and providence God chose to depend on human persons to have tremendous responsibility in carrying out his plan. In all the centuries from Abraham to Mary to the present, God has called his people to cooperate with him in important roles.   Seemingly a precarious plan. What if Abraham or Mary had refused what God asked of them? Their acceptance of God’s plan was essential.

Today the concerns of wars and rumors of wars and culture wars and storms, floods, fires, earthquakes can be overwhelming. Disasters such as these increase our sense that our very lives, our existence, and even the Church’s existence, are precarious. (A small example—we thought that the effects of Hurricane Nicholas had passed us by at Casa Juan Diego—until we discovered that the fence between our garden and the children’s play yard had been completely blown down and a large tree branch had fallen into the back yard. A telephone wire was dangling in the yard. We did not lose electrical power but 450,000 local residents did. Many came to us to replace the food they had had to discard when their power was out for days.)  We really do not know what will happen tomorrow. Precarity is reality.

The Incarnation and Precarity

In her article Martin points out how Charles Péguy’s poetic dramas place the Incarnation itself and the Lord’s interventions in history in the context of precarity. “Péguy’s particular articulation of corporeal mediation is exceptional …  insofar as it foregrounds with peculiar insistence the phenomenon of precarity…

“Catholic mediation does not force a result but rather elicits a free response, accounting for the cooperative action of an acting agent…. This high value placed upon human freedom means for Péguy that God waits—must wait—for a human response, the creaturely ‘yes.’(49)  “…it accords such freedom to human beings that the religion’s entire apparatus teeters on the precarious foundation of unmitigated risk…” (50)

Even now, Christ’s work of salvation and redemption continues, still somewhat precariously, as the human response is awaited. As Péguy said, “Everything still needs to be done. Piece by piece. Day by day.” 51)

We got to know the word precarity from Dorothy Day’s writings. Dorothy, in the tradition of the saints, taught us that the Catholic Worker movement’s voluntary poverty involves precarity (coming from the word precarious). In other words, the Catholic Worker movement is a precarious community, depending day to day on God’s Providence.  Dorothy knew that inordinate attachments, where we might worship some things in place of God and refuse his plan, would make it difficult to reach out to those in need. She often repeated the words of the saints: At the end of our life, we will   be judged on love. (Matthew 25:31ff.)

In Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis reflected on that same Bible passage, “In each of these ‘little ones,’ Christ himself is present. His flesh becomes visible in the flesh of the tortured, the crushed, the scourged, the malnourished, and the exiled… to be acknowledged, touched, and cared for by us. Let us not forget the words of Saint John of the Cross: ‘as we prepare to leave this life, we will be judged on the basis of love.’” (15)

When Dorothy wrote the “Aims and Purposes” of the Catholic Worker movement, she quoted Péguy, who also insisted, “We cannot live alone. We cannot go to Heaven alone. Otherwise, as Péguy said, God will say to us, “Where are the others?”

The Lord has promised us that God will be with his Church until the end of the world. We know that God does not want to abandon the world. Jesus came to save the world and somehow he asks his followers to assist in that work. How this can be carried out has much to do with the response of the members of His Body to the grace that God offers us in unique situations.

The barrage of messages that everyone faces to buy the latest technology or “shop until you drop,” distract us from discerning God’s will and His grace. We as individuals and as a community might make decisions contrary to God’s will as these influences take over. The emphasis on protecting our own and acquiring more may keep us from even beginning to understand, for example, the precarity of life for the many thousands of Haitians recently amassed at our border. Earthquakes and storms contributed mightily to their despair and their inability to find a way to live in their country, but decisions made in the United States in the last two centuries, including invading with our Marines and taking over the country for years, contributed to the crushing political instability and violence in Haiti – in the name of protecting American business interests.

As Mark Zwick wrote some years ago, “It is fairly well known among Catholics that bigger houses, bigger cars and fancy clothing are not prerequisites for gaining eternal salvation. On Judgement Day the Lord who came as a vulnerable baby at Christmas is not going to ask about bigger and better. In fact, he had some comments to make about people who build bigger barns.  If we can trust Sacred Scripture and the Saints who epitomize Catholic success, it appears that the Lord is going to talk about what one has given away, rather than what we have accumulated. The old adage states, ‘We take to heaven what we have given away.’ But why this insistence on purchasing and possession and bigger and better everything?  Reading through the four Gospels, one is hard put to find anything resembling encouragement of this lifestyle.”

When the storms come and the power goes out, the bigger barns may be crushed.

Participation with God’s grace may not be easy. It will include the Cross.

What Is a New Catholic to Think? Precarity Within Divisiveness

For sure, the Bible does not tie God’s interventions in history with any one political party, with any one particular ideology, with any one particular economic system. Except we know that the Lord’s plan did not include a system that exploits the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the foreigner. To understand this, Peter Maurin recommended reading the prophets of Israel and the Fathers of the Church.

A recent convert to Catholicism recently asked us to reflect for him on the current divisions and what are called culture wars, spilling over into the Church, even among Bishops, sometimes tied to political divisions. As someone new to the faith, a person drawn to the Catholic Church initially because of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, this new member of the Body of Christ was surprised by this reality reverberating in Catholic circles. He hopes that the Church will respond to the challenges of our time with the insights of Jesus in the Gospels.

As we talked with this new Catholic, we mentioned significant authors who had struggled with these questions—lay writers who loved the Church, but who were able to see the pitfalls facing priests and Church leaders as they interacted with politics, questions of rich and poor, and the zeitgeist, the social context of their times. These writers, such as Georges Bernanos, Charles Péguy, León Bloy, and more recently, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, knew that in whatever cultural context the project of God’s plan was precarious. They pointed out the shortcomings in the Church they loved, but also helped to show the way to follow the Nazarene within the ecclesial body in the world. Today Michael J. Baxter and William Cavanaugh are among those who follow this tradition, helping us to distinguish between Americanism, individualism, capitalism, and Catholicism.

If one seriously reflects on current realities and on all of human history, it can be easy to become discouraged. Surely so many unsavory, even evil events in our history cannot be what the Lord had in mind with the Creation of our beautiful world.  Not only have hatred and oppression and wars existed side by side with incredible goodness but the physical world itself seems to be on the edge of survival. And over the centuries church leaders have sometimes responded with great courage and leadership to contemporary realities but at other times their response has been inadequate or in error.

As William T. Cavanaugh recently wrote, “The church anywhere is always on the verge of failing. It is only through the action of the Holy Spirit that somehow life and hope break through the suffocating confines of sin…I remain deeply grateful for that [Catholic] identity, but in time I grew to want to mark the difference between Catholicism and Americanism by gospel criteria, such as nonviolence and attention to the poor… It is true, as Paul writes, that the church is the very body of Christ, but that body, as Paul also writes, is kenotic, self-emptying (Phil. 2:7). Christ did not grasp at power but emptied himself and took the form of a slave.

“If the church in the United States rises from the ashes, it will not be because we elected the right president who packed the federal courts with judges who will defend the church’s prerogatives. But nor will it be because the church has successfully established its brand as a prophetic agitator for social justice. The church is only attractive when people can see the poor Christ in it.”

Poets like Péguy (and Dante) have much to teach us. I have not forgotten my classes is 17th century English literature in college when we read John Donne’s famous poem, “Batter my heart, three-personed God.”  Maybe this could be a prayer for our transformation in Christ – a prayer that as God batters our hearts He may lead us more and more to respond to His grace with our Fiat— that we may help to bring His presence to our world and to the poor and captives that Jesus came to free.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you.

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend.

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

(John Donne)



William T. Cavanaugh, “I had to learn to love the church; Then I had to learn to love God.” The Christian Century, June 7, 2021.

Jennifer Newsome Martin, “The Annunciation of the Flesh: Bodily Mediation in the Work of Charles Péguy,” Communio,Spring 2021.

“Misericordiae Vultus”, by which Pope Francis convoked the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.


Houston Catholic Worker, October-December, 2021, Vol. XLI, No. 4.