This past week I attended the “Zoolights” festival at the Smithsonian National Zoo. A friend’s niece was performing with her school choir, and this seemed a good opportunity to partake in one of those delightful but decidedly child-oriented activities without the awkward out-of-place feeling that accompanies a single person on this sort of outing.
I found myself disappointed when the choir began its performance with a song praising a generic “holiday season.” They followed up with a tune about the “mysteries of snow.” To be sure, perhaps nothing else should be expected in a public school setting, but as a Catholic educator, I felt the not-uncommon sense that Christmas was again being sanitized before my eyes.
Then the choir began singing “Silent Night.” As the children “blew out” their battery powered candles, a friend and I exchanged surprised looks. “Silent Night” was followed with a Chanukah medley before a return to more secular numbers. Afterwards, my friend and I shared our similar reactions to the performance—initial distaste for the kitschy holiday tunes and later delight at the inclusion of religious music. It seemed that perhaps public education could leave room for the transcendent after all, that the religious dimension of the human experience might not be curtailed in the right environment.
After some reflection, however, it seems that this model of education poses a different danger. To present man’s desire for the transcendent without proposing a claim to a particular method in which man meets the divine is almost certainly an abandonment of the religious project. Without a claim to “the Way,” or by denying that this claim can even be made, faith becomes an abstraction. We become anthropologists, not devotees, and certainly not lovers. Like Ahaz, who refused to ask God for a sign, we deny God’s predilection, his mercy in granting us a concrete path in His Son.
The greatest sin, according to the dominant cultural mentality, appears to be this claim to particularity. As Pope Benedict XVI has said, a claim to truth is now seen as a violence. To affirm one path out of many is interpreted as an affirmation of oneself, of one’s intellectual or perhaps spiritual superiority, and is an implied affirmation of others’ inferiority. The man who professes knowledge is set up as an intolerant, self-important ideologue. In arranging such an epistemological landscape, the culture in fact reverses the dynamic of Christ’s pedagogy. Emmanuel—“God with us”—comes to man. The truth is given, not taken. In the pope’s words, “We never really have it; at best it has us.”
Why does modernity have this visceral reaction to religious particularity? We often hear an explanatory narrative involving coexistence in a pluralistic society or the sad truth that religious differences have sparked violent conflict. I would propose another explanation—that our humanity is often subject to an aversion to particularity, especially as regards the deepest questions of the heart. In the eyes of modern man, completely inculcated with the Baconian assumption that “knowledge is power,” for the truth to take us is frightening. The realization of particularity is terrifying, for it implies a commitment. It implies that my freedom and affections be moved toward an object that is totally other and therefore beyond my control.
We can imagine a romantic who, in his search for an ideal lover, is in a certain way content with his unfinished quest. He is certain that his love exists in the abstract, and that he will find her eventually. But when she does appear, he is paralyzed. No longer can his comfortable preconceptions hold sway. The appearance of the true referent to the desire of his heart means that his life must change, and in a way he might not choose or predict. Indeed, the romantic is taken, and taken outside himself. This is in a way the experience of the shepherds of the field, who are terrified at the realization that God is real, and his actions will not only change the course of history (as an abstraction), but their history. Certainly the angels’ admonition— “be not afraid” —is a necessary comfort in this state of shock.
This shock, this scandal, is precisely what we celebrate at Christmas. As Hans Urs von Balthasar writes in A Theology of History, Christ is, “in his uniqueness, raised to become the norm of our being and the norm of our concrete history, both that of the individual and that of the race.” This is the law of the universe—that in the particularity of Christ we find the fulfillment of all our abstracted desires—for truth, for beauty, for goodness, for justice, and for love. It is precisely in his particularity that Christ is attractive. I cannot reduce him to my measure, to my whims or preferences. The Way refuses to be coopted into a simple anthropological phenomenon.
Christ’s insistence on destroying our conceptions may elicit a certain reactionary aversion from modern man, but this is exactly why he is lovable. As Fr. Julian Carron writes, “In the fact that he is irreducible lies our hope; it angers us, but it is the source of our hope.” During Christmas we celebrate this hope—that “the dawn from on high will break upon us”—shattering our ideas about reality and about our circumstances. Indeed, it is our only chance for happiness. We simply ask for the grace to be confronted with an irreducible Love and to allow ourselves to become lovers.
Brett Bertucio teaches at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School, Olney, Maryland.
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