In October 2001 I had a long conversation with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. It was but weeks after 9/11; a new century and millennium were opening before us; and I wanted to get Ratzinger’s view on the main issues for the Church and for theology in the twenty-first century.
The man who would become Pope Benedict XVI was deeply concerned about the moral relativism he thought was corroding the West, and located its roots in western high culture’s refusal to say that anything was “the truth,” full stop. This was a serious problem. For when there is only “your truth” and “my truth,” there is no firm cultural foundation for society, for democracy, or for living nobly and happily.
Then Ratzinger turned to Christology, the Church’s reflection on the person and mission of Jesus Christ. Both the Church and the world were suffering from a “diminishing Christ,” he suggested. Some wanted a less assertive Christology to avoid conflict with other world religions. Some wanted to make Jesus “one of the illuminators of God,” but not the unique, saving Son of God. Both these interpretations were deeply problematic, the cardinal continued, because they pushed God farther and farther away from humanity.
“If Jesus is not the Son of God,” Cardinal Ratzinger said, “then God really is at a great distance from us.” So perhaps the chilling sense of the absence of God evident throughout much of the western world was “a product of the absence of Jesus Christ,” who is not just moral exemplar but Savior, Lord, and God-with-us – “Emmanuel.” On the other hand, “if we see this Jesus” born for us and crucified for us, “then we have a much more precise idea of God, who God is, and what God does.”
Then the cardinal connected the dots to 9/11. A “more precise” idea of God, gained through an experience of God-with-us, was not only important for the Church and its evangelical mission. It was also “crucial for the dialogue with the Islamic world, which really is about the question, who is God?”
Fifteen years later, that typically brilliant Ratzingerian analysis seems even more salient – and not just in terms of whatever dialogue may be possible with Islam, but in terms of us.
Loneliness is the modern predicament and it’s getting worse. I was recently in New York, and as walking is the only way get around traffic-choked Manhattan, I hoofed it. And what powerfully struck me is how isolated the denizens of the Concrete Jungle are – and are by choice. For the vast majority of people you bump into (sometimes literally) on the sidewalks of New York are living inside their own reality: Pod World, I started calling it when the iPod was all the rage. Today, there are very few New York pedestrians to be found without ear buds of some sort stuck into their heads. The iPod is ancient history, but the buds are still there, and so is the isolation.
Social media is no antidote to this isolation, for tweets or Facebook postings (not to mention comment threads beneath online articles) are not substitutes for real conversation. In many cases, I fear, they intensify the loneliness and the self-absorption from which it often springs.
Christmas reminds us what Christians have to say to this pervasive loneliness. We say “God is with us,” as throughout the Christmas season we celebrate the divine answer to the Advent plea, “O come, o come Emmanuel.” That plea did not go unrequited. We see the answer to it in the crèches in our homes. God is with us, not in awe and majesty, but in that most accessible of human forms, the baby who reaches out for our embrace.
God is Emmanuel, God-with-us, in the midst of our lives, not outside them. A few years ago I began collecting Fontanini crèche figures, and while the display is now as big as it’s going to get, there’s a reason why the manger in our crèche is surrounded by dozens of figures: decoratively speaking, that’s the best way to express my conviction that the Lord of history came into history to redeem history in the midst of history.
He is Emmanuel. He is God-with-us. We are not alone.