The Great Nativity [Scandal] of 2017
Over the last week, one could not scroll through social media or read through the latest Catholic blog postings and not encounter either praise or distain for this year’s Vatican nativity display. If you have not seen it, it is worth a look – and then another, and then another….it took about a dozen looks for me to move beyond my initial reaction – disdain. What were they thinking?
According to the Vatican, this year’s nativity is an artistic rendition of the Corporal Works of Mercy (feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bury the dead, visit the imprisoned…). Thus, the traditional nativity of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and the three Kings are shrouded in the shadows of a prisoner, naked man, and a dead person, all of whom are being attended to by who one may assume is a Christian living the Faith through acts of mercy. Whether you like or are inspired by it or not, there is no denying that this year’s Vatican nativity has renewed the debate as to whether or not the Church is too focused on the Social Gospel or the thought that the primary focus of the Church should be upon attending to the earthly needs of man (i.e. feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc.) – what ever happened to reverence and our deep devotion to Christ through our belief in/understanding of the Incarnation?
It is no secret that many Catholics today are inspired by the Social Gospel; that is, for most modern Catholics, they see that the way to Christ is through good works – as Christians our primary goal should be to not just be good, but to do good. If you look around your faith community, I bet you will find that this most certainly is true. I cannot count how many times I have witnessed my former students, neighbors, friends, and family members excitedly proclaim their love of Christ through good works. In other words, it seems who Christ is and the worship we owe him has been lost in the fray of trying to show each other how much we love Christ through the good work that we do.
On the other side of the pew, however, there are Catholics who are adamant that we must never allow good works to distract us from the Truth – the Incarnation is the heart and soul of Catholicism and reverence should be our top priority; when that is achieved, good works will follow. Although this side of the pew is right in as far as our devotion to Christ is centered upon what we believe him to be, the Son of God, and discerning what he is calling us to do, it too can border on the extreme when it gives in to casting aside the outside world’s place in the Church and the life of her people as it sometimes has the tendency to neglect actions as an important part of our Faith.
Reverence or relevance? I believe they both are important and we must strive to find a balance between the two. As missionary disciples, we must not shy away from using the language and sites, and good deeds of the outside world to explain what we see and encounter within the walls of the Church. That is, if we are to be successful in drawing people back to God and his Son, we must reach out to them through languages and actions that they understand - through the world's understanding that good works connect us to God. Then, and only then, will we be able to explain to them the beauty of Truth, the importance of reverence, and the awesome power which beams forth from the Incarnation. The social Gospel is a good tool in achieving this and so we must not cast it aside out of fear that it will lead us astray from understanding Christ as the Son of God.
So what about that “scandalous” nativity – what were they thinking? After many hours reflecting on the image (not kidding, I have been thinking about this for days), I have come to the conclusion that this year’s Vatican nativity is a stark reminder of what we see when we approach the world through the Incarnation. That is, when one believes that Jesus is the Son of God, that he was Incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man, they begin to see the world in a whole new light. They no longer just see Christ, Mary, and Joseph in the manager, but the naked, the hungry, the imprisoned, and the dead – all appear at the feet of the infant Christ reaching out for his merciful love. It may not be a pleasant sight to see, nor one that we wish to see while we joyfully consume the Christmas spirit, but is this not the image what we all see when we look at Christ, the Son of God – what is so scandalous” about that?