There is an ancient story that is our common heartbeat. It speaks to us, deeply, quietly and simply; its whispers are heard in the rhythms of our ordinary lives, in between the rushing activity of our regular days. As we move together and alone, the power of this ancient story is known and felt in the cracks and creases of our common heart.
We’ve been waiting for this feast for four weeks. We’ve been waiting for this for thousands of years. We’ve been waiting in the dark, lighting candles, and turning calendar pages to count down the days. We are Advent people; we were made to be people of joyful anticipation. We are communities who persist in…
Often, people talk like we are living in the darkest period of history yet. There seems to be the assumption that if you look around, it’s obvious that things couldn’t get much worse. Actually, the statistics tell a different story. Oliver Burkeman cites a statement released by the New Optimists movement:
People are indeed rising out of extreme poverty at an extraordinary rate; child mortality really has plummeted; standards of literacy, sanitation and life expectancy have never been higher.
We are living in history’s most peaceful era, with violence of all kinds — from deaths in war to schoolyard bullying — in steep decline.
Things are getting better!
As Burkeman also suggests, just because total violence in the world is down does not make each gun death a total tragedy. Positive global trends do not mean that we should not keep working for systematic change and improving the world with all our hearts. But, if anything is true about our current age, it’s that while we tend to emphasize the negative, lifting up the good news of all the advancements in our world can be a helpful antidote.
The good news of Advent is similar. Things are getting better for one great reason! The incarnation. God became human and this is the good news of all time.
In the 1200s, St. Francis of Assisi experienced the love of God in a fresh radical way and his life became a living sign of God’s outpouring goodness. At Greccio, Francis created the first living crèche. He brought together the local townspeople and animals in a cave to remember and celebrate the coming of Jesus as a baby. For Francis, the good news of Jesus was central to his life.
Later, Franciscan theologians such as Bonaventure reflected on Francis’ life and his deep love for the incarnation and began to articulate a great Franciscan insight that can profoundly change how we act. For Franciscans, God is not just some abstract being, but God is good, and specifically God is love. From this insight flows the true heart of the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition. God became human out of love not to fix sin, but to draw closer to humanity and to incarnate the true nature of God which is love. If God had become human just to fix our mistake of original sin, God would be reactive instead of initiator and creator. Instead, God is love. God wants to draw closer to us in love — the true meaning of Advent.
Why does this matter? Our concept of God can affect what we believe and, in turn, how we act. When God is love it’s easier for us to have a vision inspired by hope and joy. The world is a good place and that means we see things differently. For one thing, our task as Christians is not primarily to save others from sin but to spread God’s love, to reach out with our whole being and make the goodness of God more visible.
It’s a subtle shift — God is firstly goodness, not abstract being. God became human to more fully express love, not to save us from sin. But the implications of this shift are far-reaching into every aspect of what we believe and how we act. When God is good we find also that humanity and creation are good. We are the Beloved.
The challenge, then, is to truly believe how precious we are and to see the beloved in our friends and enemies. The challenge is to act: not only as individuals but as communities and institutions as if the good is real, primary, and move always toward building more space for the good to flourish. I look for the good even in my own struggles and find strength in my Franciscan tradition as I discuss in this “AdorationTalk.”
May goodness surprise you this Advent season, even when you least expect it.
Sister Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, playing guitar and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapeltour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.
Let us all enter into the story of Christmas and consider the amazing Truth: our God humbly, beautifully, became one of us.
We, as a humanity, have never been the same since. The Incarnation really changed everything. Now, we are people of the New Covenant, this Messianic Age.
God’s entrance into the grime of our human living means that we are transformed into holy co-creators with God.
If we REALLY think about it, and pray about it, we can’t help to have our minds totally blown with wonder and awe.
And, then, hopefully, once we realize that we are empowered to use all of our human potential—our minds, gifts, strengths, and passions—we’ll want to offer it all to God and help create the justice and peace that Jesus proclaimed.
We’ll ask hard questions, seek true answers, and allow ourselves to really be in the messy business of social and personal change.
That’s what I invite you all into this week: to join me in honoring the Baby Jesus by signing up your life; becoming part of the messy business of living as a change-maker.
Together, let’s say yes to the Love of God with all that we are. Amen!
By the way, in case you’re interested, here’s a film that I am excited to see in La Crosse in about nine days that fits with the work of being messy, Incarnation-centered change-makers:
“Salvation came to us from the “yes” uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire. The Saviour was born in a manger, in the midst of animals.” – Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium, 197)
Manure, straw, dust, animal hair, insects: all was known by Baby Jesus. Yes, God is in the mess of a stinky stable.
God is here, in the material world. All matter is amazingly made holy through this great event! Joy to the world for now we know: no mess is too much for God, for God is in the mess that intermingles with beauty and peace present in a barn, present in many corners of the world.
Today, God’s presence is known in the stink of human waste, in the villages living in garbage dumps and in the situations of people living in alleys. God is with refugee families fleeing from danger and now huddled together in make-shift tent homes seeking warmth and comfort. In our poverty, in our needs, God is with us.
God’s love is certainly revealed in the mess, the chaos, and in the interdependence of relationships. The birth of the Savior speaks clearly about God’s poverty and humility. God is a poor, vulnerable Child who cries and relies on his parents for every human need to be met. God’s love is known in the arrival and the giving, but also in the receiving, the needing and the empowering.
We are each called to be part of this holy and true story. We each have a part to play in helping God’s love to be known in every chaotic, cluttered corner of God’s Kingdom. We are called to help others and allow others to help and care for us. Love is alive in the giving and receiving, in the charity and humility. The animals and the infant in the stable show us how to participate in the holy activity.
By imitating the poor baby Jesus and admitting our need for one another we too can manifest God’s love in this holy and hurting world, where inequality and poverty is too extreme. The God of Love took on a humble, human form and came to free us! Let us respond to that Love and acknowledge our need to cooperate, to relate, to be humble and poor and care for one another.
Through God’s incarnation we are freed to recognize that great Truth that salvation history and the signs of our time proclaim. Indeed, God needs our humility, our poverty and our great “yes” to working with Love. As we cooperate with God’s great plan we ALL shall come to know the great depths of God’s peace, justice, and love. Let us share the good news of Love. Let us give and receive and celebrate the birth of Christ who has come, who is Emmanuel. Amen!
This morning I wrote a Christmas letter for 2013 and I’ll mail it out to some family and friends in the coming days. I really appreciate all of you who are the readers of Messy Jesus Business and many of you are also great friends to me, so I thought I’d share an abridged version of my Christmas letter with you.
I started the year with a lot of Christmassy cheer and idealistic intentions while some of the lighter things of Christmas 2012 lingered. I packed Christmas cookies in the freezer, acquired a Christmas sweater, and I developed a greater taste for Christmas music. I kept decorations up up in my bedroom even after we took them down throughout the rest of the house on Epiphany. So, all year I prayed with a nativity scene and a Christmas tree in my bedroom. And, last year’s Christmas cards are still hanging up as I write this now, on December 31, 2013!
In my classroom, I was surprised when some students asked if I was intending to celebrate Christmas Every Day so I could get a gift every day. The receiving of gifts hadn’t even occurred to me as a possible perk when I embarked into my experiment- ha! When I told that to my students, some used my admission as a clever way to ask me to make them some Christmas cookies– which I never actually did, to their disappointment and mine. I tended to be too determined to instill in the lessons of the theology curriculum, not cookies.
A lot of people said “Merry Christmas” to me at random times throughout 2013 and helped me remember my commitment and when this happened, I had a range of reactions. Sometimes I felt warm and cozy, like Christmas can be. Other times, I’d feel a bit annoyed or embarrassed, because I didn’t want to admit that the fun of my Christmas Every Day experiment had worn off.
Honestly, my Christmas Every Day experiment started to feel a bit like a chore in March or April, while the snow was melting and I was looking forward to the arrival of Spring. I realized its REALLY difficult to do something radical very well without the companionship of community. It was around then that I made a more conscious decision to let go of the petty parts of the holiday and delve into its deeper meanings. Otherwise, I figured, I wasn’t going to keep Christmas Every Day going.
What I needed to focus on was the True meaning of Christmas. God became a person and this event– the Incarnation– totally changed everything! It got me thinking: how was I being changed, daily by my relationship with Christ? How was the Word of God making me more into a Gospel-centered woman? As I lived into the answers, I grew to understand that Christ-centered transformation is risky, growth-filled mess mixed right into the commotion of being busy and blessed.
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth. – John 1:14
One of the major gifts of 2013 were fruits that came from living a life in union with the Word of God. Specifically, I found that I still gain a lot of energy and joy as I try to be a writer. (I’ll tell you more about that in an upcoming blog post.)
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means “God is with us.” – Matthew 1:23
There’s been a lot of goodness throughout my 2013, but it hasn’t all been easy or delightful. My increased reflections on the Incarnation this year instilled a lesson: the meanings of Christmas are not all jolly. Santa Claus, gift-giving, and candy canes can be fun, but they’re not the real point. “Merry Christmas” means much more than “hope you’re having fun.”
Celebrating Christmas means entering into the Gospel Truth of Jesus’ dramatic birth story and its lessons about God’s presence in the pain, the mess, the obscene, the awful, the mystery. That’s the real importance of the Incarnation and the great lesson of this year that I want to pass on to others. No matter how much is difficult, how miserable things may seem, or how discouraging or painful your real life is, remember that you are never alone. God is with you always, you are VERY loved and good and a community of Christians are eager to be with you too- to be the Body of Christ for you.
Perhaps these reflections on community and Christ are what compelled me to want to celebrate the ending of my 2013 Christmas with others. I concluded the experiment of Christmas Every Day by hosting a party for some friends and then I enjoyed visiting friends and family during my Christmas break. Life is full and God is so good!
Let us be good to one another. Let us rejoice and celebrate the goodness of God in 2014. It won’t be an experiment or anything special for me anymore, except for my usual counter-cultural Christian living.