We both grew up as “cradle Catholics.” We attended Catholic schools, went to Sunday Mass with our families, and were surrounded by almost exclusively Catholic social circles. Despite our constant immersion in our faith tradition, we had no emotional connection to Catholicism, and our intellectual curiosity led us to explore other systems of belief (or nonbelief). By our late teen years, we had each found our own replacements for Jesus. Jordan found herself fascinated by Hindu scripture and mystical Islamic poetry, while Chris consumed the literature of the “New Atheism” movement. We were unconvinced that Jesus was anything more than one teacher among wise teachers, or that Christianity offered any novel truth.
During our freshman year at Georgetown University, we each wondered if someday we might formally leave the faith. But in our own ways and in our own time, we were each drawn back to the religion of our childhoods. The arresting music and quiet community of Dahlgren Chapel offered us a more personal experience of the divine, while theology courses and conversations with chaplains and friends fed our intellectual questions. We studied various Christologies — a scholarly word for “what we believe about Jesus” — and began to ponder what made Jesus more than just a nice guy who claimed to be God.
‘The most extraordinary compliment’
One formative author who shaped our understanding of Jesus was Fr. Michael Himes, whose writings we encountered in a theology course at Georgetown. Himes’ reflections on the Incarnation — God becoming human in the person of Jesus — finally convinced us what it is that makes the truths of Christianity and the person of Jesus Christ stand out from the religions of the world or rise above the void of atheism. Himes taught us that Christianity is not first and foremost about a God who is infinitely mighty and radically separate from us. Christianity is about a God who “stoops,” an all-powerful Creator who loves humanity so much that He chooses to become human. Whatever this suggests about God, it tells us even more about what it means to be human. Himes writes that the Incarnation is “without question, the most extraordinary compliment ever paid to being human.”
Himes’ discussion of the Incarnation begins not with Christmas, but with the creation story, when God used his own divinity as the “blueprint” for humanity. The Book of Genesis recounts that God deemed humanity “very good,” but we humans were not convinced. Original sin, Himes writes, isn’t so much about human pride but rather “the rejection of the goodness of being human.” We sin when we buy into the serpent’s lie: being human isn’t good enough and “we must become something other than and more than human beings in order to truly be like God.”
The Incarnation — God’s response to our sin — tells us that we don’t need to reject our humanity to become holy. It reminds us that what we and God have in common is, in fact, our humanity. God reminds us of our own goodness, our own enough-ness, by choosing to become one of us.
The Incarnation is more than a historical event. Its basic truth about human goodness, so simple yet so radical, shapes our entire worldview as Christians. We live in a society that rejects the goodness of being human in so many innovative ways. We disregard human dignity by forcing migrants across deadly desert trails, striking innocent families across the world with unmanned drones, and, yes, aborting millions who would belong to the next generation. But Christianity tells us that God values human life so highly that he would enter into the human experience himself, share our suffering, and reaffirm his first judgment of humankind: “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good.”
The Jesus that we encountered in Himes’ work does not demand perfection but instead invites us into companionship and compassion. By choosing to be born into poverty, Jesus showed us it’s not necessary to abandon this material and temporary world to seek God in the higher things. Rather, we can be close to him if we are fully immersed in the nitty-gritty of human life, because “intimate union with God and the unity of all humanity are the same thing.”
For Jordan, the unique vision of God posited by Christianity pulled her back to a faith centered around Jesus. She discovered a God who “walks with” and found herself encountering him not only through prayer but in her relationships with others. For Chris, Christianity filled a gap in atheism, which failed to account for the source of human dignity. This was not a religion that made people look up and feel small, but rather look to one’s neighbor and remember a God who infinitely loves and values each human being.
This Advent, we look back at our respective journeys, grateful for the many experiences that taught us what belief in Jesus really means. And we also look forward, dreaming with Isaiah and awaiting the day when humanity recognizes the face of Christ in every person.
Christmas is a not just a celebration of a God who was or a God who is to come. It is a celebration of the God who is “I am” — Emmanuel, God with us. Along with St. Irenaeus, we thank God the Father for helping us encounter his Son, who “through his transcendent love, became what we are, that he might bring us to be what he is himself.”