Monday, August 19, 2013

The Great "Both/And"

"Deep down, what do all human beings desire?"  At a recent in-service for Catholic school teachers, I asked this question and then waited not-so-patiently for someone to respond.  Just as I was about to jump back in with a follow-up question, a couple of teachers simultaneously shouted, "Love."

It's pretty hard to argue with that answer, isn't it?  We all desire to love and to be loved.  Indeed, Jesus became one with us, laid down his life, and then rose from the dead precisely to re-order our lives to Love. 

Yet the term love is so often misused or even abused, and Jesus' message is so often reduced to a warm fuzzy message--a variation of the Barney theme song.  So is love just a matter of doing what makes me feel good at any given moment, or is it about making a sincere gift of myself for the good of others?  Is it just a matter of pursuing my own self-interest, or does it involve willing what's in the best interest of others? 

The Doctrine of the Incarnation stands as a great safeguard against the trivialization of Christian love.  It is a sign pointing us toward the deeper truth of Trinitarian love which God has revealed in his Son.  As people who long to love and be loved, these sacred mysteries need to shape our view of the world, our attitudes and actions, and our experience of life itself.

But the reality of the Incarnation sets a seeming contradiction at the heart of our faith.  It challenges us to walk in the opaque light of mystery.  The Second Vatican Council speaks of Christ who, "by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear" (GS, n. 22).  The Creator comes as a creature and--simultaneously--reveals both who God is and who we are.

So to be Catholic is to embrace paradox.  It is to recognize, but not resolve, the tension created by mystery.  And, ultimately, to be Catholic is to live within a Mystery which exceeds our comprehension, but which remains nonetheless knowable.  Thanks to the great "both/and" of the Incarnation, a number of other "both/ands" follow.  You may have your own favorites, but here are a couple of mine: 
  • Both loved unconditionally And called to conversion:  I'm O.K. but I'm not O.K., and this is O.K.  God simultaneously loves me just the way I am, and he invites me to become an even better version of myself.  Nobody's perfect, but everybody's perfectible--thanks to God's grace.
  • Both spiritual And religious: Materialism denies the spiritual dimension of the human person, and the many versions of new age "spirituality" respond by seeking an escape from the fallen physical world.  Christ inaugurates an authentically religious worldview--a sacramental vision of reality--in which spiritual realities are made visible through the physical.
  • Both a narrow gate And an easy yoke:  Jesus preaches no "wealth and wellness gospel"; his only promise comes in the shape of a cross.  Yet this narrow gate to life is the only path which will ultimately be easy for us, since our Lord promises to help carry our load--if we let him.
To love as Jesus loved is both to let him wash our feet and to become a "foot-washer."  It is a matter of letting God's grace work in us, even as we serve those in need.  It requires both that we see Christ in others and that we be Christ for others. 

Here we begin to approach the heart of the Incarnation: the crucified and risen God-Man, who is both our Friend and our Lord.