One of the most fascinating aspects of the Christmas story to me is how quietly it begins. It isn’t difficult to imagine a start with greater fanfare, one that portends the eventual destiny of the story’s hero: consider the sea-faring of Theseus’ mother Aethra, all crashing surf and craggy rocks, or the gleaming shower of gold pouring into the open air prison-courtyard of Danaë that then gave rise to Perseus. Both conception stories account for the divine origins of their heroes, and imagine in some sense the extraordinary events that will mark the remainder of their narratives.
And then there is the Gospel of Matthew, which in its early chapters emphasizes above all else the silence that characterizes the conception of Christ. (Even in Luke, where we get the lovely dialogue between Mary and the angel Gabriel, the conception itself is described in terms of a shadow falling over Mary.) We, the readers, find out that Mary is pregnant only when her betrothed husband Joseph does, and at that same time come to the knowledge that he, being a kind man, wants to divorce her quietly rather than shame her in public. But God intervenes, confirming with Joseph in a dream that Mary’s pregnancy is an act of divine will. Joseph wakes and the marriage goes off without a hitch, kicking off the heading-to-Bethlehem story we all know.
From the very start, all major events we concern ourselves with are profoundly silent and internal. There’s no swim in the roaring wine-dark sea or inexplicable shower of gold. God wills that Mary become pregnant, and she simply does, with no more fuss than that with which a shadow falls. Joseph’s conflict over what to do about it arises within, between his desire to act by the law and his desire to act mercifully toward Mary. And the resolution to his troubles comes in the privacy of a dream, experienced in the silence of sleep by no one but himself.
A lot of the early action of what will develop into the salvation of humanity is, in other words, internal. It begins with acts of generation, healing, and reconciliation within the bodies and hearts and minds of people. These are the humble and quiet motions that, taken together, constitute the foundation of all the beauty that follows: silent changes, inside people.
Which gives us some occasion to meditate upon what those sorts of changes in people, quiet and personal as they may be, are capable of giving rise to. The question then is: how do we best facilitate motions of healing and generation and reconciliation within people?
Whatever the answer may be, I’m pretty sure that we don’t go about it the way some supporters of Pope Francis recently have.
I’ll always be first in line to praise Pope Francis; based on what we’ve seen and read of him, I think he’s an exemplary Christian and an excellent shepherd. But since some of his positions have unsettled American conservatives, the ‘Pope Francis is right and the right wing is wrong and nya-nya’ narrative has been rather lucrative for media outlets. Thus we find rather click-baity, comment-war-encouraging headlining going on otherwise conciliatory articles. More troubling yet is the sheer plenitude of articles that amount to little more than ball-spiking, name-calling, and/or gloating. I mean, seriously — claiming that Republicans specifically will ‘hate‘ that Pope Francis prefers homeless people not be homeless? Needlessly incendiary. Nobody wants anyone to be without a home.
It may well be the case that many of those who oppose Francis’ anti-poverty and political messages are perhaps more attached to their politics than their theology, or that some amount of resistance to his anti-poverty thrust arises from a certain personal interest in maintaining wealth. But the former is a symptom of a culture steeped in team politics and political tribalism, and the latter is a spiritual struggle that is not unlike the various struggles we all deal with, the sort which call for spiritual care rather than vicious public shaming. Whatever the source, the solution surely isn’t the sort of nose-rubbing featuring Francis as a prop that many on the left have had fun with over the last few months.
The reality is that the aggressive told-you-so technique of thinking through Francis’ message in Christian discourse is the opposite of the kind of evangelism he proposes, and it scarcely seems to be in good faith. It also elides quite smoothly into misrepresenting the totality of his example for political purposes. If we’re motivated to scoreboard politically based on Francis’ example, then we’re guilty of no less political tribalism than that which binds up much of the evangelical right. Evangelism begins in the home, and the Christian community writ large does have some serious problems to solve internally. But I don’t think we’ll do that by turning one of our finest examples of lived Christianity into a political cudgel.
Instead, in the new year, I hope we can focus on discussing Francis’ example and message in the context of our life as a church. To come closer together in that mission, it seems sensible to me to encourage the small, quiet miracles that go on inside people every day: miracles of compassion, understanding, generosity, change. It is possible to build a Christian church that is wholesale devoted to the care of this earth and all its people, especially its poorest, as we’re commanded. But a church of that character won’t arise out of bludgeoning one another toward the advancement of particular parties or ideologies; it will arise out of reconciliation, healing, and love: and the fulfillment of the law is love.
Merry Christmas, with all my love.