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Make It A New Year of Significance

Ninety-two years ago the Reverend Harry Emerson Fosdick, then preacher at the First Presbyterian Church in New York, gave the Cole Lectures for 1922 at Vanderbilt University. These were later collected in book form under the title Christianity and Progress [copyright 1922, Fleming H. Revell Company]. Fosdick, a well-known and sometimes controversial theologian, argued that genuine progress can only be sustained in the context of faith. In his first lecture he said, “This world needs something more than a soft gospel of inevitable progress. It needs salvation from its ignorance, its sin, its inefficiency, its apathy, its silly optimism and its appalling carelessness.”

This might seem a less-than-cheery starting point on this New Year’s Eve entering 2014. Often we speak to one another of the future on this night as if it were to be somehow entirely separated from all that has gone before. Public airwaves and internet blogs review the year past and cast a line into the year ahead, on some occasions with an easy optimism that belies the complexity that relates 11:59 pm of one day with 12:00 am of the next.

Better to seek to leave the past and enter the future with a couple of important tools in the toolbox:

One would be a realistic appreciation of the continuities between today and tomorrow, even those continuities heavy to carry, the ones we wish could be left behind. War. Famine. Political haggling without apparent progress. Deep disagreements between peoples, nations, and faiths that have endured the passing of numberless new year’s eves.

A second tool might be a perspective that sees the present moment in its long-term context. This is neither the best nor the worst of times. It is nestled somewhere between the two, likely comfortable with neither extreme. And also, you can bet, in need of some real improving.

A third tool would be the use of a particularly human gift mentioned and developed by Fosdick in his second lecture almost a century ago. It is the question of meaning that we human creatures put to ourselves both minute-to-minute and throughout our lives: what does this experience, this moment, this event, this night, this life mean? What is its significance? Both the posing and the perhaps-hesitant answering of that question is one of the most powerful tools we can use – both to understand the year that ends tonight and the new one as it begins.

Fosdick puts this forward as one of the key gifts of religion to humanity; religion, a powerful reality yet that has often suffered a bad name in the period between Fosdick and ourselves. He said at Vanderbilt:

“The deep need of a worthy interpretation of life is just as urgent in a world where the idea of progress reigns as in any other, and to supply that need is one of the major functions of religion. For religion is something more than all the creeds that have endeavored to express its thought. Religion is something more than all the organizations that have tried to incarnate its purposes. Religion is the human spirit, by the grace of God, seeking and finding an interpretation of experience that puts sense and worth, dignity, elevation, joy, and hope into life.”

We need to know why. Or at least to place that most human of questions before us always and everywhere. In religion, according to Fosdick, we find a force that both insists we ask the question and introduces us to a Lord whose Gospel is much more than ‘soft.’

Every generation receives this question. It bubbles up from deep within us. We handle it as best we can. Some years, some generations, do a better job of it than others. And then the question, still living and intact, is passed on hand-to-hand and heart-to-heart to the young. Forty years after Fosdick spoke, Baroness Catherine de Hueck Doherty, impassioned Catholic, Russian emigre, founder of Madonna House (an apostolate of laity and priests serving the poor still today), continued her ongoing longtime correspondence with Father Louis, that is, Thomas Merton, Trappist priest, monk, author, activist [Compassionate Fire: The Letters of Thomas Merton & Catherine de Hueck Doherty, edited by Robert Wild, Ave Maria Press, 2009].

Expressing her frustration at the formalized, dry, overly-intellectualized approach she saw developing among groups like hers, de Hueck Doherty wrote of her desire “to shout to my fellow lay apostles at those conferences, conventions, THAT NOTHING MATTERS EXCEPT CARITAS!” (capital letters in the original!). The baroness asserts that “worldly competence” only means anything in the context of being motivated first, last, and completely by love.

This is one instance in an endless sea of possible examples of the truth that what we humans do is make meaning, or if you prefer, recognize significance. For Catherine Doherty, meaning is made by love, by reaching out, serving, offering what we have in caritas. We all receive in these latter days a living example of caritas taking the lead in the words, acts, and person of Francis, Bishop of Rome. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby just a day ago seconded Time’s choice of the former Jorge Maria Bergoglio as Person of the Year, calling him ‘an extraordinary man.’

There is a reasonable likelihood that Archbishop Welby, Catherine Doherty, and the Pope himself would be united in a devout wish that Francis would not be so extraordinary in letting love take the lead, but rather one of many who would do so.

Let caritas become quite everyday and ordinary.

Now there’s a New Year’s desire that is both unrealistic and a valid response to the meaning-making of Harry Emerson Fosdick, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, and many other valiant men and women who have lived new year’s eves before this one, and wondered and hoped what the next year would bring as we may do tonight.

The word-master Thomas Merton, in a letter to another great 20th century woman, Dorothy Day, appears to both echo and answer Catherine Doherty as he sets forth all that can be hoped-for on this or any night:

“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy if anything can.”
[Letter to Dorothy Day, quoted in Catholic Voices In a World on Fire (2005) by Stephen Hand, p. 180].

And so, I can dare to say: Happy New Year!


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Christmas 2013: God the Weak

Christmas 2013
Saint John, Lattingtown, New York

“Do not be afraid!”

The angel needed to sing those words to the shepherds looking upward on a night like this long ago. The angel needed to assure that all was well and that glory was shining and that what was happening was the birth of a Child who would save, a Son who is God. The angel needed to sing that all was more than well.


Well because we may not think about it this way any more, as we set up our trees and hang our wreaths, and wrap our gifts and share our Christmas dinner, and keep our Christmas traditions … but this was a night of the unknown, of people on the edge, of the lonely and the uncertain. This was a night of vulnerability. This first Christmas was a night when an unseen hand tore open the side of reality and revealed something that had never been seen before in just this way. And although that something
was divine Love, though this something was undying hope, though this something was salvation, though this something was better than the best we could imagine … still, to be on the ground that night looking up at it would make one sore afraid.

This was a night of vulnerability. This was the night when God joined us in vulnerability, when God emptied out divinity and became small, helpless, and at the mercy of the darkness of the night. This was the night of Jesus’ birth.

There are lyrics by a songwriter of our time who asks what would this whole thing we live look like if it were a play? Would it not look “as if the hero came too late,” as if “he’s almost in defeat”? Would it not look as if the side of darkness would have the victory?

But then the chorus goes like this:

“It is love that mixed the mortar
And it’s love who stacked these stones
And it’s love who made the stage here
Although it looks like we’re alone;
In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it’s love that wrote this play…
For in this darkness love can show the way.”

This was a night of the vulnerable. Think about it.

There is the power of Empire, ordering the whole population to move, to travel on foot to ancestral homes to be registered for the sake of easier control. And among them is Joseph, with his wife Mary about to give birth, making the voyage from Nazareth to Bethlehem – 80 miles – on foot. Not because he chose it, but because they were vulnerable before the power of Rome.

There are the shepherds in the fields, caring for their sheep. They are people on the margins of society, outcast by their work, with only the company of sheep, and now and then of one another, alone under the night sky, in the silence, at the mercy of the weather. They are vulnerable before all the forces of nature and of man. They are powerless. Not because they choose to be, but because it is their lot in life.

There are Mary and Joseph, arriving at Bethlehem as the baby stirs for the birth. Joseph is ‘home,’ but home is not home. There is no one there that knows them. There is no one there who cares for them. There is no one there who pities them. They are alone. They take shelter where they can, among God’s creatures who cannot say no, the livestock in the stable. They are vulnerable, not because they choose to be, but because they have no living connection to the immediate world around them. There is only the one man, the woman he loves, and the child coming into the world.

There is Mary, in labor. Every woman who has brought a child into the world knows there is no more vulnerable moment in her life. She could lose her life in working to bring this new life to light. She is helpless before anything around her, as the focus of attention, of energy is on the coming child. Mary is absolutely vulnerable this Bethlehem night, the center of vulnerability, because she must be if this chosen one is to be born.

On this night human vulnerability gives birth to the vulnerable God. God in Jesus Christ, born in the stable at Bethlehem, wrapped in simple cloths and laid in a manger … God is completely vulnerable before the universe, defenseless, exposed, weak, naked …

Not because he had to be, but because he chose to be.

God chose to be one of us, to be human. God chose to be empty, to lie in the open field of life, prey to all the forces at work in the world. And that vulnerability is not a facade. It is real. And on the Cross we will witness how complete his vulnerability remains.

This is a night of vulnerability revealing a vulnerable God. And what a perfect gift this is for us. For we are vulnerable creatures who, in fear, spend most of our lives seeking to hide our vulnerability, to cover over our uncertainty, to mask what we lack, to pretend to be more than we are, as if what God made us is not more than enough.

But if we take this night to heart, and the birth that is at its center; if we follow God’s example in Jesus and allow ourselves to be as truly vulnerable as we truly are, then something beautiful and of God emerges this Christmas night in our lives. But this is not easy. This is frightening. This needs an angel chanting, “Do not be afraid!”

Take Jackie Turner for example. Let her stand in for all of us in our hidden vulnerabilities. Jackie is an honor student, a junior at a California college, a real person. She is caring and funny and smart. But this time of year she feels as alone as Mary and Joseph did that night at Bethlehem, or moreso. Jackie has no family. She never knew her mother, and her father knew her only to threaten her, to starve her, to isolate her, to beat her.

This year Jackie decided to change this season and she placed an ad on Craig’s list, looking for a Mom and Dad with whom she could spend Christmas. And she was willing to pay.

Jackie got a lot of responses, about equally divided between parents willing to take her in, and young people like herself who were suffering a thousand unique variations of the same loneliness. All of them, uniquely and equally vulnerable.

And then Jackie did an amazing thing. She brought together one recent evening those who had offered to provide her a home for Christmas, and those who had shared with her their own vulnerability. And she introduced them to each other. And she matched need with love that night. And people found one another, and smiled, and embraced, and prepared to make this Christmas night something new.

This only happened because Jackie Turner was able to say out loud: “I am alone, and broken in some ways, and I have needs, and I cannot fulfill them on my own. I am vulnerable. I am human.”
And lo, and behold, so is everyone else, not because they choose to be, but because that’s just how it is. But behold something more: in admitting this truth, what is revealed is the possibility and the truth, the strength and the beauty of community, of people revealed as belonging to one another in the sight of God. Whether they be shepherds, or traveling child-birthing couples, or California college juniors, or soldiers, or mothers or fathers, or widows or orphans, or the rich or the poor, or the young or the old. Or you and I.

We each and all are completely vulnerable. And that is scary.

But this night God comes to us as fully vulnerable as anyone who has ever been born. And that is good news. That is Gospel.

Because it reveals, this vulnerable night, how truly and completely in God we all belong to one another, across every burden and boundary we can recognize or devise.

We are always vulnerable. But we are never alone. And in fact it is our vulnerability that opens in us the call to be, in ourselves, revealers of God.

As a 20th century believer and mystic put it as she thought about this night: “The way to begin healing the wounds of the world is to treasure the Infant Christ in us; to be not the castle but the cradle of Christ; and, in rocking that cradle to the rhythm of love, to swing the whole world back into the beat of the Music of Eternal Life.”

It’s a scary night. And a beautiful one.

Do not be afraid. Merry Christmas!

– John P McGinty