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Let There be Light

Incarnation and Interpretation

The Christmas season, or, for you rigorists, the season of Advent, is suddenly and shockingly upon us once again. Already. Why does this always happen? The arrival Christmas, of course, is completely regular and predictable, as are the conflicting feelings (at least for me) of joy and dread. ‘Tis a truly wonderful time of the year, but oh no who did I leave off my gift list and what on earth am I going to get them?

What was less predictable (though shouldn’t have been, in retrospect) was that the crisis in the Catholic Church, and the moral imperative of a top-to-bottom reform that is the raison d’etre of our columns here, is as urgent as ever. The sobering aspect this Christmas is that we are still reckoning with the sexual abuse scandal and the virulent opposition to Pope Francis and his effort to promote a pastoral conversion in the church.

How to think about such turbulence in the midst of Advent? Yes, there are the parallels to Lent, as both move us from darkness to light, and both seasons are marked by a period of intense spiritual preparation. But I think the Christmas season has another, vital, lesson for us that we can carry through the years of change and transition to come. That lesson is the most obvious one, namely the reality of the Incarnation. How does the Incarnation relate to the crisis in Catholicism?

For one thing, there is the obvious messiness of the human condition that God, as Jesus, entered into. He didn’t fix it. He just redeemed it. We still live in hope of seeing “thy kingdom come.” We grow impatient as we wait for that hope to be fulfilled, or at least to see some greater steps toward that hope, some clear signs to answer our predicament.

But what the Incarnation reminds us above all is that even Jesus did not provide easy answers to his followers, much less simple solutions to those of us who came later. He couldn’t. He was human, and we are human, and we are all bound by those limitations. I was reminded of this reality some years ago when, in one of those happy accidents that can save a writer (and make you forever doubt whether you have ever consulted enough sources to actually finish a piece), I lingered at a stoop sale and came across a volume of essays on Gnosticism by the late Jesuit scripture scholar George W. MacRae.

I hadn’t known of McRae, though I should have, and I found his observations for a project on Gnosticism very insightful and helpful. But it was something I hadn’t been looking for, an informative essay that McRae wrote on the modernist scholar and priest Alfred Loisy, that remained with me. It struck me not so much for what MacRae said about Loisy as for what MacRae wrote, at the end of the piece, about the Incarnation – namely, that “the central doctrine of Catholic Christianity is the doctrine of the Incarnation.”

That’s an obvious statement, I suppose, though one with consequences that that the church has too often taken pains to avoid. The anxiety around Loisy, McRae noted, and the anxiety among many in the contemporary church, is that applying methods of research and criticism to the Bible and Christian history and the figure of Jesus confounded the longstanding yearning “for a situation in which God would provide biblical and dogmatic access to the truth about himself and his Son, would provide revelation, that is, which is exempt from the laws and the limitations of human discourse.”

The church had allowed itself,” he wrote, “and many Christians still do, to yearn for that point at which God will speak directly, not through the muddled confusion of human utterance: there must be somewhere some words of God that are immune to the interpretive processes that we of necessity have to exercise when we try to understand one another.”

But, as McRae continued, “in that yearning the church sought a privilege that was not granted even to the Son of God. In the Incarnation, God entrusted his Son to humanity in its fullest sense … If all the utterances by which revelation is communicated to us are utterances in human language, that is, as is often said, if God speaks to us in the language of humanity, then we must interpret God’s speech as we interpret the language of humanity.”

It has been a hallmark, almost a verbal tic, of the critics of Pope Francis to argue that he is spreading “confusion” in the church, and confusion “is of the Devil,” as Archbishop Charles Chaput once said in reference to the synods Francis has called to discuss critical issues facing the church. Or, as Chaput said elsewhere, “Honesty and clarity are always good things. Confusion and ambiguity are never of God.”

Francis’ teaching is nothing if not ambiguous, these critics say, open to various interpretations, and his preaching is imprecise and subject to misunderstanding and, well, not fit for a pope whose every utterance could carry magisterial weight. Never mind that the Bible is full of episodes in which the Apostles are left scratching their heads over something Jesus has said. No, argue these critics, all must be clear and in black and white, with no room for discernment or adaptation or, God forbid, considering the situation of the person in front of you or examining your own conscience.

That’s not how Jesus worked, that’s not how human beings are, that’s not what the church is. And if the church tries to operate simply as a legal system then she betrays herself, and her founder. As Francis told a forum of canonists earlier this month, ministry “is not something mathematical, simply to see which reason weighs more than the other. No. There is the Holy Spirit that must guide the case, always. If the Holy Spirit is not there, what we do is not ecclesial.”

We want a road map and a timeline, clear direction and perfect certainty. We will not have them. Instead we will have an assurance, a hope, a baby in a manger and a mission to accompany those in need, to pursue justice, to be merciful and to accept that no pope and no commission, no expert and no saint, is going to provide a magical solution to our predicament. Proof-texts and easy judgments are the opposite of the Incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas. Our mission has as much to do with persistence as with patience.

As McRae concluded: “The church should not shy away from accepting that same risk which God may be said to have taken in the greatest mystery of our faith. The church can do so, and with confidence, if it does not forget the promise that God is with us.”

Blessed Advent, and Merry Christmas.

David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. 


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