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Sometimes our job is to stand up for Jesus contra mundum — against the world.
God has a very difficult job to do at Christmas. He wants to come close to his people, but his people no longer trust him. He wants the world to embrace “God With Us” (Emmanuel), but the world is convinced he is “God Against Us.”
This misunderstanding about God was at the heart of the fall of mankind. Adam and Eve easily fell into the traps the serpent laid, making God sound strict (“Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees …?”) and tricky (“God knows well that the moment you eat of it …”)
We inherited their misunderstanding of God. We either feel God is irrational and negative and mean, and we know better — or we think he is dictatorial, all-powerful and angry, so we act like an abused dog around him, shrinking in fear.
God’s answer to this problem is the Christmas story. He will become an infant God in a manger surrounded by shepherds and wise men, as an unmistakable corrective to the world’s attitude toward God.
Today’s readings prove it. In the first reading, Ahaz, the evil king, suffers from all the ugly pathologies we have about God. He lives a life of disobedience, as if God weren’t worth following, and when God commands him to ask for a sign, Ahaz refuses. “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!” he says. This is a pretense at holiness by a man who thinks God is a trickster like himself. He thinks he has God all figured out.
How wrong he is. This is the sign God gives him: “The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”
Joseph hears the same news and has a very different reaction. For Joseph, God is not only worth following — leaving his side is unthinkable. Not only will Joseph not play games with God —he is willing to leave the mysteriously pregnant Mary in order to avoid even the appearance of playing games.
Then, Joseph changes his plan again, when hears the angel’s fateful words: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home, for it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Joseph is that blessed combination of humility and nobility that God needs. He is not too great to be God’s servant; he’s also not too “humble” to be God’s partner. He trusts God and is willing to let God be God and learn from God himself who God is.
And so, thanks to Joseph, the world at Christmas leaves behind the age of “Us Without God” and enters the age of “God With Us.”
Thanks to Joseph we welcome the Paul describes today: “promised previously through his prophets in the holy Scriptures … descended from David according to the flesh, but established as Son of God in power.”
That’s the attitude the Church wants us to have at Christmas. God is coming close to us, and we will have to accept the fact of what that means. We can’t dismiss God as a tyrant or outsmart him as a trickster. The infant in the manger is neither.
Our job, like Joseph’s, is to welcome him like a man, no matter what the world says.
Photo: Christ Goldberg, Flickr
The Gregorian Institute is Benedictine College’s initiative to promote Catholic identity in public life by equipping leaders (the Gregorian speech digest), training leaders (the Gregorian Fellows), defending the faith (the Memorare Army for Religious Freedom), and celebrating Catholic identity (the Catholic Hall of Fame).