The moral mission of the church: Christmas Reflections

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly….” (Luke 1:46, 32)

One of my favorite sayings comes from an improbable source, the Freudian philosophical critic of the 1960’s, Norman O. Brown: “Doing nothing is the supreme action.” This is the perfect thought for Christmas 2018 in the United States of America, I believe. Let me explain.

The irony of American history today is this. The swamp in Washington, D.C. must be drained: but it must be drained of the very people who gave that expression its currency. In a time of global climate crisis, we are now stalled in a national political quagmire that seems to be worsening every day, due to a know-nothing corruption of the American political mind. Item: to champion the use of more coal, as the powers that be are doing these days, is to champion the way of Death. How are people of faith to respond to this situation?

From a deeply rooted traditionalist Christian perspective, I say: reclaim the song of Mother Mary, the Magnificat, which celebrates the promise of the One who is to be the Christ Child: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly….” (Luke 1:46-47, 52)

I hear these words as mandating an important revision of three popular understandings of Christian discipleship, each of which still has a certain kind of validity: 1) the moral mission of the Church is to train individuals to go out into the world to be responsible citizens (this is what I was taught in my earliest years); 2) the moral mission of the Church is for its members to go out into the world as a change-agents (this is how I tended to think in the era of the sixties); 3) the moral mission of the Church is to be a community of “resident aliens,” who “keep faith alive,” especially through liturgical and spiritual practices, in a world that appears to be going to hell in every direction (this theme, championed by contemporary theologian Stanley Hauerwas, has been a siren song that I’ve been listening to in recent years).

I believe that these times require fresh insights. This is what I have in mind: 4) the moral mission of the Church first of all is to do nothing, for that is the supreme action. For Christmas, this will mean, concretely: do nothing but march in place and sing. This, I believe, is the first thing that Mother Mary’s song tells those of us who are struggling to be Christians today. For this season, never mind what appears to be happening in Washington, D.C., know this. God is in charge! So magnify the Lord!

Why not believe something like that that’s so overwhelmingly implausible? Why not march in place, for a time, doing what in the eyes of this world is nothing? Why not just stand there and celebrate the birth of the Suffering Non-Violent Liberator, in particular (see Luke 4:18-19)? For this Suffering Non-Violent Liberator is at work, according to the witness of the Bible, invisibly but powerfully, everywhere, especially among the poor and downtrodden creatures of this world.

What the Gospel of Luke identifies as Mother Mary’s song might well have been familiar to Luke as a hymn that was sung in a number of Jewish-Christian communities in the Holy Land by the “Poor Ones,” the Anawim – a word that was used “originally to denote the physically poor, but in time came to be applied to people in Israel who were unfortunate, lowly, sick, downtrodden. Their opposites were not simply the rich, but included the proud, the arrogant, those who felt no need of God.” (Joseph Fitzmeyer)
This Christmas, then, do nothing, except march in place and sing, because the Bible tells us so. God has entered the world in this Child as the world’s Suffering Non-Violent Liberator. Never mind how things appear to be playing out on the stage of human history today, the Suffering Non-Violent Liberator is at work everywhere, especially amidst the anguished hovels and the trembling hearts of the Anawim of this world. Therefore march in place and cheer.

Note well, however, that the Christmas season isn’t forever. Before too long, Epiphany and Lent will be upon us, when we’ll be reaffirming the second thing in our moral mission as people who are trying to be Christians: what it means for us to invoke the Zulu tonalities of Siyahamba, “We Are Marching in the Light of God.” This Christmas, as we stomp our feet to celebrate the arrival of the Suffering Non-Violent Liberator and his primal ministry to the Anawim, we will also be readying ourselves to stand with them wherever He and they might be found, not just inside, but also beyond the household of faith, perhaps even as far away as that caravan of refugees just outside the southern border of the United States of America. Call this dual vision of the Church’s moral mission (vision no. 4) – first marching in place, second marching on – the Anawim option. That’s what the song of Mother Mary inspires me to ponder and to celebrate this year.

NOTE: A few days after I had finished these reflections, I picked up the January 4, 2019 issue of Commonweal. That not-to-be-missed Catholic review of religion, politics, and culture sometimes reruns articles from its own archives. This one, published September 20, 1968, was an essay by the Catholic theologian and social critic, Herbert McCabe (d. 2001), whom I used to follow closely, beginning back in the sixties: “Priesthood & Revolution: Where Christianity and Marxism Part Ways.” I may have read that essay back then; I’m not sure.

Be that as it may, I have just discovered that McCabe referenced the Anawim in that essay. I thought that I had first learned about that group of first century Jewish Christians, who were “of low estate,” when I was working with the commentary on the Magnificat in Luke by the Catholic biblical scholar, Joseph Fitzmeyer. Perhaps, then, the popular half-truth, “There are no coincidences in history,” might be more than a half-truth. Could it be that my own pedestrian Christmas reflections in 2018 are, in truth, dependent, in some sense, on McCabe’s eloquent insights in 1968? I would like to think so.

For as I read – re-read? – McCabe’s reflections about the Church as a movement for truth and justice for the Anawim within the global human community (I would want to specify, in addition, that that movement is underway within the global community of all earth-creatures), my mind and heart resonated with McCabe’s voice and I was inspired by his vision, all over again. Needless to say, I hope that anyone who is reading my 2018 Christmas reflectcions will also find time to search and find and read McCabe’s inspiring essay, as well.