I can’t remember another Advent when the contrast was so stark. As Catholics we are preparing our hearts and homes to celebrate the wonder and mystery of Jesus at Christmas – the innocent God-Man who by his birth, life, death and resurrection heals our brokenness. In contrast to this light stands a darkened culture that breeds violence, callousness towards others and dissatisfaction with life.
On the night that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, an angel appeared to shepherds who lived in the fields and were watching their flock. The angel told them not to be afraid because he had “good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11). That angel was then joined by a multitude of others, who declared, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
This past year has been anything but peaceful. Every time an attack occurs, people rightfully lament the lives that have been taken and those who have been wounded. But very few people ask why. Instead a chorus of calls for stricter gun control laws or government monitoring is heard.
The answer to why people carry out these atrocities is the same as it was when Christ was born. The human heart needs to be healed, and only God can do that, only Jesus Christ can do that. Sadly, though, Western society is pushing Christ out of its laws, public debates and culture. Banishing God from the conversation leaves only atheism. And so, without true healing, the war within our hearts continues claim victims.
During his Nov. 14, 2012 general audience, Pope Benedict XVI described the consequences for cultures that engage in this kind of practical atheism. “Were God to lose his centrality,” he said, “man would lose his rightful place, he would no longer fit into creation, into relations with others. What ancient wisdom evokes with the myth of Prometheus has not faded: man thinks he himself can become a ‘god,’ master of life and death.” And the violence of today, as in past history, occurs when man makes himself “god.”
This void is easily filled with numerous destructive ideologies that promise to fulfill us but ultimately fail, sometimes with devastating consequences. In their analysis, “Paris: The War ISIS Wants,” authors Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid argue that ISIS is one movement that attempts to fill this vacuum. They write, “ISIS’s theatrical brutality—whether in the Middle East or now in Europe—is part of a conscious plan designed to instill among believers a sense of meaning that is sacred and sublime, while scaring the hell out of fence-sitters and enemies.”
Catholic scholar Ross Douthat agrees, writing in his Nov. 23 column “The Joy of ISIS,” “The deep reality here … is that many human beings, especially perhaps young human beings, still crave a transcendent purpose, even in a society that tells them they don’t really need one to live a comfortable, fulfilling life.”
Not all forms of godlessness cause such obvious physical damage. I regularly encounter people who have discovered that material possessions, sexuality disconnected from God’s design for it, various addictions, and self-absorption are in fact idols that enslave them and lead to bitter disappointment, loneliness and broken hearts. These are the fruits of God being pushed away and replaced.
But every Advent and Christmas we celebrate the fact that God refused to leave us in this state. Unlike the highly coordinated marketing that competes for our attention, God chose to offer us salvation with powerful simplicity. Jesus was born in poverty, in a shelter for barn animals. He was announced first to simple shepherds, not to the privileged.
The contrast is becoming greater as God and the Gospel are pushed further away. This Advent let us make a conscious effort to welcome Jesus into our homes and hearts with prayer, gratitude, and joy. Let us give our infant Savior the kind of welcome that is heard in the opening line of the St. Andrew Christmas Novena prayer. “Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born Of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold.” May he be born anew in our hearts and souls this Christmas!