(Editor’s note: Patrick Schmadeke, 27, is a graduate of St. Ambrose University (‘13) and a student in the Master of Divinity program at the University of Notre Dame. His column offers reflections on his coursework, engaging with the richness of the Catholic tradition and its relevance to the world today.)
During the Christmas season we collectively reflected on the birth of Christ. We call the mystery of God becoming flesh the mystery of the incarnation. The incarnation frames how we understand the relationship between the human and the divine. Through Jesus’ birth, we see the Creator is connected to all of creation. It is in creation that Christ reveals the love of God in the complex web of relationships that exist in the world. This profound mystery of our faith causes us to ask, “What does the incarnation have to say to us today?”
Answering this question requires that we identify the implicit questions and needs of our time. In my own lifetime, the world has gotten progressively “smaller” since the early days of the internet. International travel has become more commonplace. We can communicate with people almost anywhere in the world. We can buy fair trade goods from impoverished regions of the globe. And yet, despite the ways the world has become smaller, we can discern a growth in the distance between peoples, a tendency towards isolation.
Isolation takes many forms. It can be national, economic, religious and ethnic. It can manifest itself in a tone of superiority, a mentality of exclusion or a feeling of inferiority. Individuals and communities become isolated from God, from each other and from people and ideas that are different then what they are used to. When something new is perceived as a threat to a current way of life, an attitude of isolation gets defensive and rejects it.
Now, more than at any point in history, we recognize the many ways the world is connected across cultural, linguistic and economic boundaries. The enormous responsibility that comes with this awareness can cause us to draw back into ourselves, resting in a false sense of comfort and security. However, any willful posture of isolation is not only inappropriate and unhelpful, it is harmful and contrary to God’s love.
Isolation is the opposite of connection, it is the sundering of relationship; it is the absence of love. We see its effects all around us. Our leaders have become tone deaf to those most in need. Voices on the public stage resort to condescension in the place of conversation. Our body politic has become entrenched in opposing positions. Many continue to trade the practice of basic human decency for knee-jerk reactions to half-clever one-liners void of truth, goodness and love. If we are to adhere to Jesus’ command to “love one another” (John 13:34), we must not only see these trends as intolerable, we must go a step further…we must respond by exercising our capacity for intimacy with all people. We must work to regain our personal touch.
In the face of isolation stands the incarnation. What does the incarnation say to our situation today? Perhaps is it the same thing the incarnation has always said: there is still work to be done, and Christ has shown us the way. The work for us to do is to build up the kingdom of God. The way that Christ has shown us to act is with love. Any boundary resisting this is not of God, but of human indecency. At Christmas we celebrate the birth of “Immanuel” which means, “God is with us” (Matt 1:23). In the incarnation, God shatters the barrier between himself and us. Who are we to build barriers that isolate our fellow people of God? We would do well to reflect on the reality that salvation is meant for all people, and to recognize that Christ is at the center of all creation, binding us to one another in love.