The Human Deed: An Advent Meditation by Edward R. Burns

The life of the world today seems very fragile, fragmented, and poised to fly off in many directions that are fraught with violence, chaos, and confusion. News reports are filled with stories of domestic abuse, national disasters, and mass shootings. Incidents like these bear out the sentiments of W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” As a nation and as a culture, we seem to be losing this sense of a center that can keep us together, a center of common purpose, something that can anchor us in our daily life, something we were once able to articulate in the expression “We the people.”

If, in fact, our national culture is breaking apart into separate conclaves of violence and polarization, what can we do about it? Those of us who claim the Christian faith can begin by listening more carefully to the words of Jesus when he says things like, “You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.” Or take this astounding claim found in John’s Gospel:

I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh (John 6:48–51).

The question we might ask ourselves about this claim of Jesus is who, what, and where this bread is today—the bread that Jesus gives for the life of the world. And the answer is: We are. We are that bread.

In the prologue to his Gospel, John speaks about the heart of the Christian faith, the mystery of the Incarnation, in these well-known words: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Word of God, the Son of God, took on our fragile humanity, and in that moment we became sanctified. Our humanity was “charged with the grandeur of God,” to use the striking phrase of Gerard Manley Hopkins. In that wonderful exchange between God and ourselves, we became the bread that Jesus has given for the life of the world. And so our lives are very important—important to each other, and important for each other.

In a Christmas homily given in the fifth century, Pope Leo the Great said, “O Christians, be mindful of your dignity. You have now become partakers of the divine nature.” Each of us now has a sacred vocation and responsibility to bear witness to this revelation and truth of the Gospel. To the extent that we do so, we will be making our own contribution to the life of a world that seems to be at risk of falling into chaos and darkness, a world without salt or light or bread.

Authentic Christian faith must always be rooted and reflected in the lives and wants and needs of ordinary human beings. As William F. Lynch has written, “The Gospel is always located at the center of our humanity.” This means, I think, that we must be careful about harboring utopian visions regarding the nature of our churches and the goals they seek to achieve in their respective ministries. We need to have realistic expectations of what a Christian vocation requires of us. None of us, for example, can bring about world peace and the cessation of violence on our own. But each of us can become a man or woman of peace, and each of us can learn “to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as Christ has forgiven us” (Eph. 4:31–32).

As we reflect on the terrible tragedies that occur daily on a global or national or local level, knowing that we cannot fix them all, we need to ask ourselves what we can do in the meantime. Our vision of the Christian life and its attendant responsibilities needs to become more earthy, more concrete and immediate to our daily circumstances. All too often, when people speak about “spirituality” or the “spiritual life,” they describe it in vague and ethereal terms, as if our bodily existence doesn’t count for much. After all, we are “just passing through,” and our ultimate goal is to get somewhere beyond space and time to where we really belong. Implied in this kind of theology and spirituality lies a subtle contempt for our own humanity and for the Incarnation of the Son of God that is the focus of the Advent season. This kind of thinking splits us in two and devalues the dignity and sacredness of our lives here on earth. It also tempts us to ignore or run away from our human responsibilities toward ourselves and each other. It makes us forget that the Word became flesh—our flesh—and dwells among us.

“Human spirituality does not mean access to another world,” wrote Robert Johann, “but a deeper intimacy with this one.” The One we seek in our spiritual lives is already here with us. It is in the human deed that we will find God. Once again, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life . . . the living bread that came down from heaven. . . . [T]he bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Because of the astounding intimacy created between God and ourselves in the moment of the Incarnation, we are now that flesh, that bread, that Christ has given for the life of the world.

Edward R. Burns is a licensed marital and family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he maintains a private practice treating individuals, couples, and families. He is the author, most recently, of The Sacredness and Profound Depths of Being Human: Reflections on the Manifold Forms and Unexpected Epiphanies of the Incarnation, available here.

Image: The Nativity, Lorenzo Monaco (Piero di Giovanni), ca. 1406–10. Metropolitan Museum of Art/Public Domain.

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