As we look around at the Christmas decorations, programs, ceremonies, shopping, cards, greetings and the whole Christmas season, what messages do we get? What does it all mean?
Clearly, something unusual and good is in the air. People seem friendlier, parties and benefits are everywhere. Charities, soap kitchens, and the Salvation Army are busier than usual.
When we think of the origin of Christmas, we realize that it began as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Today, however, it is possible to go through the entire Christmastime without ever hearing that name. Many children are taught that the central figure of Christmas is Santa Claus on his mission of kindness and goodwill.
So, what about this Jesus Christ? Is he still important, even relevant?
Well, we know he must be important if much of the world still celebrates his birthday which happened two millennia ago. With a little research, we can discover that much of the world still belongs to the organization he founded, namely, the Christian church in its many variations.
Why? Why is this man’s influence still felt after so many centuries?
That is a harder question to answer. And there are many answers, some officially pronounced by church authorities, some by individuals. Ultimately, each person must give his/her own answer.
This is my answer.
Christians believe that Jesus Christ was God-come-to-earth, God’s creation of the perfect man. That idea has a richness that confirms our value as human beings, because “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son”, as John’s gospel tells us. In Jesus, we have been given a vision of the perfect human being, the assurance that such a being CAN exist in spite of all the evil and pettiness we see around us.
The coming of Jesus calls us all to a higher version of ourselves, a better self. The coming of Jesus set the standard of human behavior much higher than it had been before. All of us have our failures as human beings, but the fact of Jesus Christ allows us to better understand when we fail and gives us hope that we – and other people, as well — can do better, can be more like the Christ.
Then there is his story. We have only pieces of his story — bio-sketches in the gospels, along with some of his key teachings. Some of the things that happened in that story, however, are fundamentally shocking.
He could have come to earth as Superman, but he didn’t. He came as a helpless little baby. He chose to be born poor – not the first choice of most of us. He worked his way up in the world by his words, backed up by his works – both of which were extraordinary.
He chose peaceful rebellion instead of military force. He forgave his enemies. He called everyone his brother (or sister). And he worked miracles on occasion to demonstrate that he had the power to do otherwise but chose kindness and mercy rather than violence and force. So, they killed him.
But then he did the most spectacular deed of all: he rose from the dead!
Therein lie the lessons of the perfect man: powerful yet humble, peaceful yet killed by violence, defeated yet triumphant, defining victory as resurrection rather than domination. His message is an interpretation of human life at odds with everything the world teaches us about a successful life. It is a call to become a better person.
The transcendent lesson is pretty clear: We are all going to die. What will matter then is how we lived. How closely to that perfect human being have we been able to become?
Christmas celebrates the coming of God to earth, to us. It is a thrilling realization that this event happened, this event that brings hope and joy and forgiveness into our lives and gives us a vision of the mountain top from which we can launch our own resurrection. If God so loved us, then we are all worth loving, we all can love fearlessly, completely and happily.
We celebrate and give each other gifts as a recognition of God’s love for each of us, of your value as a person loved by God and loved by me – a value which was revealed once and for all on the day that God sent his Son to be born in a manger in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago.
So, yes, Christmas is still relevant.
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!
I just got back from Easter Vigil Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican with Pope Francis – because, why not?, when all the livestreaming world is your only option. (“Presided over by the Holy Father in a nearly empty basilica,” the Vatican English language translator, Sister Bernadette, said on the livefeed.) And as I have been for weeks – and years – I was moved by the Holy Father. His homily took us right to the heart of what we’re experiencing. The darkness. The fear. The hesitancy to sing Alleluia!, even though not only is that what is liturgically called for now, as Holy Saturday passes away – and this “Lentiest of Lents” as it has been called, but it is exactly what we need to say and hear and believe with all our hearts.
Or at least that’s where I am.
The pope talked about the women who loved Jesus so. And talked about the women who love Jesus so. As in today. As you may have picked up along the way, I’m friends with many women religious – sisters and nuns – and I happen to know that some of them are as without Mass as anyone right now in these quarantine times. And yet they pour themselves out in prayer still. They are on the phone with people suffering and then-some. (And, women, of course, are not alone in pouring themselves out, reaching out — take the Franciscan friars in the New York metro area who have a hotline for people in need of COVID-19 emergency spiritual care.) I see, too, many mothers post on social media what their families have been doing these past days, really kindling the fires of faith in their domestic churches. They are, as Pope Francis put it, sowing seeds of hope with gestures of love and care and prayer.
Hope is not optimism or empty words when we have nothing else to say or want desperately to make things better. The hope we’re talking about at Easter is a gift from Heaven we could not earn on our own, as Pope Francis put it. Jesus is the giver of this hope, of all hope. Easter is how we can be sure He says with credibility DO NOT BE AFRAID. We acquire, Pope Francis said, at Easter this fundamental right of hope. It’s planted in our hearts. Even from the grave, He brings life. Jesus emerged for us to begin a new story. He can remove the stones in front of our hearts, too. God is faithful. He entered into our pain, anguish, death. He wants His light to penetrate into the darkest corners. Darkness and death do not have the last word. Be strong. Have courage!
Courage, he continued, is not something you can give yourself. You receive it as a gift.
Receive it. Beg to receive it! (I added the second, maybe preaching to myself.)
Ask Jesus: Come to me amid my fears.
With you, Lord, we will be tested but not destroyed.
Nothing can rob us of the love God has for us.
The Lord goes before us, he said, walks ahead of us. Take some consolation in this. That Jesus goes first! Remember we have been lead and loved by God. We are born and reborn.
And we cannot keep this message of hope confined to our churches. It must be brought to everyone. [Conveniently we can’t be in our churches right now….] We who have touched the word of life must give it. Be messengers of life in a time of death! Sing the song of life, silence the cries of death!
He went on to insist on an end to war and abortion.
Fill empty hands.
His words brought me to two streets in Manhattan I haven’t been on for a while now. Margaret Sanger Place, where the flagship Planned Parenthood is and St Patrick’s Cathedral, where Will often sits at the corner, and Patrick right outside Saks Fifth Avenue across the street. Where are they? Do they have light, as they are light? They sure have shown me hope on days when I was plenty preoccupied and distracted with the world. (Patrick and I hugged just days before things started shutting down. Will such things ever happen again with the new protocols of life?)
This Coronavirus Easter is happening because death too often is our way. Even when we fight it, are we doing so with total light and love?
As he ended his homily at the Easter vigil tonight, Pope Francis said: Cling to Jesus like the women did — Jesus risen.
He offered a prayer: We turn our backs to death and turn to You, O Lord.
What does this mean in a time of Coronavirus? It is still Easter and we cannot go to church! The greatest prayer there is, the Mass, we can’t be physically present for.
It’s a matter for prayer. It’s going to look different for each one of us, according to our roles. We each have our roles, that’s for certain. And it’s a new story today of love renewed.
I once asked the late Cardinal George if the Church was in renewal. It was after the first round of scandals, and I was seeing young people on fire with the faith and giving him all kinds of other examples. He said with a fatherly wisdom that the Church is always in renewal. I see that more and more every day, but especially on account of this damned Coronavirus. It is from hell, and we cannot be paralyzed by it. We cannot stop loving. We cannot stop being and showing hope.
Think and pray about that as you launch into Easter Alleluias – out of tradition and obligation or from the heart. Say it. And pray that you can overwhelm all the world you inhabit with it in the most supernatural ways. That’s the message of Easter for us in a particular way this year: There’s darkness and sickness and death, but that’s not it! That’s never been it! But have we been living as if it is?
My Easter prayers for you, whomever you are and whatever you believe.
Peace. Courage. Hope!
Column: Is American society ready for the coronavirus pandemic?
A few months after September 11, 2001, David Brooks went back and looked at coverage of Pearl Harbor for an article in the Weekly Standard (“After Pearl Harbor,” December 10, 2001). What he saw intrigued him. A sense of unity and patriotism followed both surprise attacks. But media after Pearl Harbor had none of the sorrow, sensitivity, and angst that filled the news, with reason, after 9/11. Recognizing the inevitable costs of war, Americans on the home front at the outset of World War II were nonetheless eager to carry on as usual. They did not apologize or second-guess. They soldiered on. “When you step back and contemplate the range of post-Pearl Harbor media,” Brooks wrote, “you are struck by how extraordinarily proud of itself America then was.”
I revisited Brooks’s article this week while thinking about the differences between America during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 and America during the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic today. Some of the distinctions are self-evident. America is far more wealthy, free, and technologically advanced than it was then. We enjoy the benefits of incorporating half the population into our economy and society, of ending de jure anti-black racism, of attracting the best and most ambitious talent from across the globe. We are no longer a rising power but a reluctant hegemon. A raw deal awaits any American who trades places with a doppelgänger from midway through Woodrow Wilson’s second term.
What changed is the American ethos. Expressive individualism replaced self-restraint. Narcissism and the therapeutic sensibility triumphed over the reticence and sense of tragedy that comes from living in places and times where there is no safety net and death is a constant presence. The culture of debunking, revisionism, and repudiation informs education, entertainment, art, and occasionally sport.
The size, scope, and ambition of the federal government and its managers is far greater now than it was then. So are the public’s expectations of government capabilities and performance. The institutions that stand between the individual and state have weakened where they have not crumbled. Family, community, religion, and voluntary association attenuate as modernity deprives them of their traditional functions.
The United States is beginning to shut down and self-isolate. Its G7 partners range from states of quarantine (Italy) to lockdown (France) to closed borders (Germany). Countries do not make such decisions on a lark. Nor is the reason for these extraordinary measures a secret. What terrifies the authorities is the prospect of surges in infection that would push public health systems beyond capacity and result in mass death. To prevent a medical catastrophe, the authorities guarantee an economic one.
The social capacity of America has received less attention. The worst-case scenarios anticipate an epidemic that lasts until a vaccine can be mass produced 18 months from now. Do we believe that American society could withstand until then the additional pressures that have been put on it over the past week?
The typical discussion of how coronavirus will change your life focuses on a specific practice or sector of industry. You hear a lot about telework, home schooling, vote by mail, or movies released on Video on Demand rather than in theaters. This piecemeal approach is understandable. Perhaps the problem is so complex, the potential extent of the disruption so massive, that the way to approach it is to study one aspect at a time.
But an extended lockdown will affect more than activities. It will warp institutions. There is a debate over how Congress might operate under social distancing. What about churches, synagogues, and mosques? Church attendance was falling before the virus. Even if the pandemic were to revive the religious impulse, would-be prodigal sons won’t be able to attend services. Church finances—nonprofits in general—will be harmed. In some cases, the damage will be irreparable.
The family enters this crisis beleaguered. My American Enterprise Institute colleague Nicholas Eberstadt writes in National Affairs of “the collapse of work for adult men, and the retreat from the world of work of growing numbers of men of conventional working age.” The recent improvements in the overall labor force participation rate will disappear if the economic fallout of the pandemic is large and enduring. Long-term joblessness and lack of prospects are barriers to marriage and to family formation. And the two-parent family is the seedbed for the character formation of young people. The social costs are enormous. And they are mounting.
Bill de Blasio’s indecision over whether to close New York City schools revealed that these institutions perform parental functions as much as educational ones. The school has become much more than a place of instruction. It is the site of feeding, caring, and supervision (if not disciplining) of children. Deprived of the shelter of the local school, children and young adults will have to look to parents for meals, instruction, and surveillance. Are parents ready to fulfill the responsibilities assumed by the state? What will happen when parents return to work or look for new employment? Will teenagers obey a guidance or curfew that is not enforced under penalty of law?
Large pools of nonworking or truant males are not associated with social or political stability. But they loom large in our future. The economic self-isolation of America can continue only for so long as American society permits. And if Americans, as they have tended to do, revolt against strictures from above, how will authorities respond? None of the answers are comforting. If the coronavirus overwhelms America’s social capacity, our government won’t be in a position to choose between an economic crisis or a pandemic. It will have both.
A first in human history: Anxious about their future on a hotter planet and angry at world leaders for failing to arrest the crisis, masses of young people poured into the streets on every continent on Friday for a day of global climate protests. Organizers estimated the turnout to be around four million in thousands of cities and towns worldwide. (Somini Sengupta, New York Times, September 20, 2019) (Below: Youth March for Climate Change (New York City, Sept.20, 2019)
What is the motivating force which could impel such an amazing reaction of youngsters all over the world (except China)? Clearly, the threat of extinction is taken so seriously by so many youths that they felt compelled to participate in this effort. What has convinced so many in so many places simultaneously?
Apparently, it is the vision of the planet earth being baked into destruction by the sun’s rays. This vision seems to have originated from the speculations of climate scientists as interpreted and simplified by activists. Cold, neutral, formulaic science has never elicited such emotional reactions. Those ideas had to be interpreted and simplified by propagandists. Eventually, the vision emerged with its dramatic impact and its ability to inspire visceral fear. It is this vision which has motivated a youthful passion which thirsts for a cause to believe in.
In that sense, climate change advocacy demonstrates many of the same characteristics as religion. It is an unquestioning belief in an unseen event; it inspires an ethic requiring sacrifice to achieve; and it thrives on communal events. Thus, it meets the traditional characteristics of religion: creed, code, and cult.
This phenomenon also raises the question, “Why are these folks (young and old) so open to a new religion?” Why are they not dedicated to the traditional religions of their elders? Or, more concretely, why has the Western world witnessed such a precipitous decline of traditional religious practice in recent generations?
The answer to these questions lies in the disconnect between the common life experience of our modern culture and the world view of traditional religions. As one way of approaching this topic, we might look at the differences in the epistemology (the way of understanding) between what religion teaches us compared to that of our everyday life.
Traditionally, religion proclaims that another invisible world exists in addition to this visible world. The invisible world is better than this world. This vision has brought comfort and peace to many millions of people through the ages. It has served as a reason for us to behave in certain ways which are conducive to the common good and it has given us hope to reach heaven and eternal peace when we die.
Common life experience in the 21st century exhibits a quite different vision. First of all, we live in a world of constant discovery. While many aspects of this world are invisible, such as thoughts and emotions and happiness, it is also true that our science is based on the presumption that all reality is ultimately physical, even if it is too small to be seen (atoms), too large to be understood (the universe), or discoverable only through its effect on things that can be measured (neutrons). As a culture, we have come to believe that all reality is knowable, even if we don’t yet know it. We keep learning new things all the time, only to discover more things we don’t know. Nevertheless, the thrill of learning is one of our cultural goals.
It is the task of the theologians to conceptualize and explain the spiritual dimensions of our human experience and the connections between our life experience and our traditional beliefs. It appears that today’s theologians are asleep at the switch. Our culture cries out for an ethic which takes the world we live in much more seriously than does traditional religion. To achieve that ethic, a new vision must be developed – one which understands the beauty of the universe, the world we live in, the body we have been given, and the ways in which this visible world must be treated in order for us to achieve happiness and satisfaction in our interactions with this world, our community and ourselves.
In such a vision, we see technology as an extension of our body – machines to take us farther and faster than our legs could carry us, to make our minds more agile, our imaginations more original, our views more expansive. We see our love extended to other races and places beyond our natural limits, our talents challenged by new plateaus, and our world enriched by the newness of our life on earth. This is a vision which will allow us to seek the transcendent meaning of life as the sum of all the good and evil we can see with our sharpened insights and to find our personal path to virtue, happiness and holiness.
As our lives are enriched by the colors and textures of this world which God has provided for us, we are also confronted with new responsibilities and obligations. which have been ignored in the past, to maintain that world. Some examples: while the absolute need for cheap and plentiful energy is granted, how do we justify digging coal at the risk of black lung disease for the miners? How do we justify burying nuclear waste which will take 3000 years to dissipate? How do we preserve our planet’s suitability for human life? How do we balance the harm of nuclear weapons against the cost in human life? What do we owe to trees and wildlife? And, what are the ethical norms by which we are to measure such answers?
Religion, like life itself, must evolve to meet the very real spiritual needs of real people. If organized religions fail in this fundamental obligation, people will substitute whatever they can find in order to satisfy the primal need we all share for spiritual nourishment – even if it is as flimsy as climate change.
“The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.”
by Scott L. Vanatter
President Reagan’s address March 8, 1983 at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida has become known as the “Evil Empire” speech. The speech also included many other insights into who Reagan was, and into his considered wisdom on things of this world, and of the world to come.
Apropos to this year’s campaign, Reagan declared this truism, “If history teaches anything, it teaches that simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly.” Continue reading