Saving grace, Christian mission

Wedged between Isaiah’s glorious messianic hymn and Luke’s touching account of the angelic announcement of the Nativity, Paul’s confession of Christmas faith to Titus (Titus 2:11-14) often gets homiletic short shrift at midnight Mass. Which is a shame, because those three brief verses are a compact, early Christian catechism, offering perennially valid points for Christmas meditation.

Paul begins with the early Church’s understanding of just-what-happened in Bethlehem: the “grace of God has appeared.” That saving grace first appears to the world in the form of a child, “infinity dwindled to infancy,” in Father Edward Oakes’s fine phrase; the divine epiphany, this showing-forth of the “grace of God,” reaches its dramatic consummation at Easter, when the fullness of God’s saving power is revealed. Thus in its very first sentence, the reading from Paul’s letter to Titus links Christmas to Easter, or, perhaps better, “reads” Christmas through the prism of Easter faith, without which Christmas faith would be little more than sentimentality.

Paul’s succinct catechesis continues with his reminder that this epiphany of grace has real-life consequences: it is not just amazing grace but also saving grace, by which we are empowered “to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly and devoutly in this age.” And by “this age,” Paul does not mean only the Age of the Caesars; he means every age, including this age: this here-and-now in which we find ourselves, often tempted by the culture to reduce our humanity to a bundle of desires. To accept that diminishment of the human (however it may inform certain decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court) is to adopt “godless ways”; to live “devoutly” is to live “justly” by the power of saving grace, in conformity to the moral law that, as John Paul II taught at Sinai in 2000, was written on the human heart before it was written on tablets of stone.

The Pauline mini-catechism then points us from the past and present into the future: the saving grace that has appeared in the drama whose first act is Christmas and whose triumphant climax is Easter calls us to “the blessed hope,” which is “the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ,” when the liberation of humanity and indeed of all creation will be complete, in that Kingdom where God will be “everything to every one” (1 Corinthians 15:28). Thus in a few brief sentences, as biblical scholar Gianfranco Ravasi points out, Paul’s catechesis connects the great Christological events of salvation history to the final consummation of history, while reminding us that there is work to do now: for Christ “gave himself for us … to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good.”

As Pope Francis has forcefully reminded the Church in his apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), the work to which we are all called is evangelical and missionary. Every baptized Christian is baptized into a missionary vocation; everyone is called to offer others an invitation to experience the grace of God that has appeared among us, which is found in friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ. “Mission” is not something the Church does. Pope Francis teaches; mission is what the Church is. “The missions” are not exotic places from the pages of National Geographic; “the missions” are all around us, for every place we go, every day, is mission territory.

In pondering the grace that has appeared among us, we are called, the pope writes, to understand ourselves as “a community of missionary disciples” who are “permanently in a state of mission” in order to evangelize the world. The crib and the rest of the Christmas tableau can be the starting point for mission, when Christmas is lived and celebrated through the world-transforming experience of Easter. For the experience of the Risen Lord, which gives meaning to our adoration of the babe of Bethlehem, is an experience that demands to be shared—a gift that, to grow in us, must be offered to others.

Christmas in mission territory is Christmas everywhere.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.