As usual, a medley of things has been flooding my head and my heart these last several weeks. One of the Mass prefaces for Christmas that beautifully proclaims Jesus as the visible form of the invisible God, a recent meeting with some great folks to discuss how we can better serve the recently arrived Myanmar refugees in Milwaukee, the seasonal song “Good King Wenceslaus,” which narrates a noble act of charity, visiting some old college friends, the terrible murder of Catholics coming out of Christmas Mass in Nigeria by terrorists, a couple days of retreat at a Trappist monastery, a discussion with a friend of mine about the intimate relationship between the Trinity and the Blessed Virgin Mary, the naming of Archbishop Dolan as a cardinal, a visit to an extraordinary museum of Russian icons and helping wrap Christmas gifts at Catholic Charities are some of the experiences and ideas that have struck me lately.
As we move out of the Christmas season and into Ordinary Time, as we get back to the business of life, it is so easy to put away, along with the ornaments, lights and gifts, the prayer, joy and love that we felt during this holy time. But, we all felt something different this Christmas, didn’t we? Hopefully, the hectic pace stopped for a while, we celebrated with family and friends, we went to Mass and we prayed. Our worries, sufferings and fears receded just a little bit. The wonder of God made visible in Jesus, the infinite love of the Lord for us, the ancient story of a pregnant woman on a journey, a birth in a manger, with shepherds, astrologers and angels coming and going never fails to capture our hearts and stir our imaginations.
If we want to carry the peace, joy and love of Christmas into this new year, we must ponder a central theological truth: Just as Jesus makes God visible and present in this world, so the church makes Jesus public, present and visible. That is her mission and so it is ours as well as we are daughters and sons of the church. In proclaiming the Word, celebrating the sacraments and undertaking actions of charity and justice, the church continues the saving mission of Jesus. Each one of us must be a part of this vast, public undertaking of making Jesus tangible and real in the world.
Throughout Christian history, at particular times and for varied reasons, certain movements, theologians and communities have sought to so spiritualize the church as to make her invisible. Ecclesial realities like the Mass, saints, sacred art, ordained deacons, priests and bishops, icons, social engagement in the public square by religious believers, monasteries and convents, the writings of the church Fathers, religious garb, the obligation to create a just and merciful political and economic order, to name just a few, were seen by some, both within the Catholic church and those who left her, as merely human additions which sully the purity of Christ’s Gospel.
But for us as Catholics, the church must have a tangible, sacramental, “flesh and blood,” public presence in the world because Jesus did. While there exists an ever-present temptation to cling to the external form of religion without an interior life of prayer and conversion, this is not reason enough to reject the visibility of Christ’s Body. I wonder sometimes if we as Catholics have tried so hard to fit into the culture around us that we have become invisible, almost indistinguishable as practicing believers. Our faith must be public as the preaching, healing, Passion and death of Jesus Christ was public. How do we make our relationship with the Lord so real and tangible that both friends and strangers come to see Christ at work in our words and actions?
In reflection, I realize that all of the seemingly disconnected things rolling around in my head actually find an inner coherence as reflections of the invisible God made visible for us in Jesus Christ. Things as disparate as martyrdom, Christmas carols, cardinals, good friends, icons and acts of charity are all mysteries which point us to the luminous presence of the incarnate Christ in our lives and our world. The challenge of our Catholic faith is to increasingly allow the Holy Spirit to make us visible extensions of Jesus for others. When we dare to ask the Lord to use us in that way, we make Christmas last all year long.