In coming days, it is obligatory for all preachers to dust off their “Keep Christ in Christmas” sermon. The villain is commercialism. The remedy is to shop less, donate time or money to the less fortunate, and increase one’s prayer. I am tired of this message. My concern, particularly during Advent, is my inadequate appreciation for Christ’s Incarnation, and consequently my distraction from the true locus of Christ’s church.
In a recent column, Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI, paraphrases a social worker’s theology along these lines: “I am involved with the poor because I am a Christian. But I can work for years and never mention Christ’s name because I believe that God is mature enough that God doesn’t demand to be the center of our conscious attention all the time.” The social worker who does the job with competence and empathy has the privilege of encountering God Incarnate almost unaware, at least not until that social worker reflects on his or her workday.
Where is Jesus during Advent? Through an uncommon and meaningful program, seminarians in the State of Washington get close to the real Jesus who is a baby in a trough, a common criminal on a cross, a fisherman, a neighbor, a teacher, a healing friend and a sometime agitator. These seminarians are required to spend some weeks laboring alongside migrant farm workers. By engaging in such work and through conversations with migrants, these young men get “good formation,” their bishop explains. They are made to think about an alternative to the attitude that the church is centered within the chancery or the rectory.
However, the seminarians, their bishop, and I are still a crucial half step away from a better appreciation of the Incarnation and thus from the true locus of Christ’s church. A seminarian in the program says that the church “goes to meet [the people] where they are”; his bishop says, “We need the church to be close to those doing this labor.” No doubt these are positive statements. But the seminarian and the bishop could be missing the true meaning of Christmas if they presume that the church suddenly appears whenever a church employee shows up on the scene. Although God exists apart from human experience, the Incarnation means that God is simultaneously and intimately in a machine shop, a retail store, an accounting room, a hospital unit, and in the jail, the court, and the restaurant long before and after a visit from a church employee. Christ and his church are in all workaday places, whether people are continually conscious of Christ or not.
My Advent journey for 2021 is to get beyond a notion of church that uses phrases like “Bring Christ to the marketplace” or “Keep Christ in the world” or “Don’t lose Christ at the mall.” Christians certainly can gin up their virtues during Advent—cultivating more empathy and joy, for example. Advent especially calls out for an increase of the worldly virtues like social justice, solidarity, and peace. But “bringing Christ to the world” is a tad arrogant.
Doesn’t it make for an intriguing Advent to realize that Christ is all along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue’s shopping district? Isn’t it worth a pause these days to glimpse Christ in the neighborhood? To suspect that Jesus Incarnate lurks in the office, walks the legislative hall, and inhabits the school? Do not these places, like all sacraments, both hide and reveal God? Isn’t Advent about looking at an animal trough in Bethlehem with eyes of faith and thereby seeing the Creator and Savior of the whole universe? The challenge, then, is not so much to bring God or the church anywhere as to encounter Christ who lives within us and among us.
William Droel is the editor of Initiatives (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a printed newsletter on faith and work.