There is, however, one acronym that has enjoyed a consistent appeal, even before the days of tweeting and messaging: “WWJD?”
“What would Jesus do?” It is a reasonable question to ask in moments of our lives when we are in need of an example of the right thing to do. However, when it comes to living our lives lovingly and joyfully, around Christmastime I am reminded of how the Incarnation — the event of God taking on a human body in Jesus Christ — can be an even better concept in which to ground ourselves.
A few years ago, I was trying to help a friend put together a cabinet in the basement of her new house. She was upstairs unpacking something else, so when I called up to her asking how a certain piece was supposed to connect, she started calling down directions. After several minutes of frustration with minimal success, my friend said, “Never mind, I’ll just come down and show you!”
By the time Jesus came into the world, God had already invested a lot of effort in offering directions to his people on how to love and honor him, and each other — often without success. There is a sense in which the Incarnation is like God saying, “Alright! I’ll just come down and show you!”
Of course, just because God came to be with us does not mean that the directions themselves are any less pressing or relevant. Jesus commands us: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22: 37-39).
The list may be shorter than the original 10 directions (commandments), but the fact of the matter is, this is still a lot to accomplish. We aren’t building an Ikea shelf, after all; we’re building the Kingdom of God. And like any pursuit that is new to us or otherwise difficult, we have plenty of questions about conditions and parameters along the way: How many times do I need to forgive a loved one who has hurt me? How about seven times, will that do the trick? Toward whom in society do I focus my greatest energy, care and resources? Toward those who have earned it?
One of the many things in life for which I am thankful is that our God is not one to leave us to figure it all our on our own. In the Bible and in the whole of Catholic Tradition, we have a manual. In Jesus Christ we have a teacher and a model.
To the first question of how many times we need to forgive one another, Jesus replies, “No, up to seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). Then he goes around generously forgiving people just as relentlessly as he does now. He teaches us forgiveness by living it himself. This is evidently one important way we live out Jesus’ command to love our God, our neighbor and ourselves.
As to the the question of whom we are to be most concerned about in our society, Jesus shows us his answer by spending his time with the poor, the marginalized and the sinners. This example is comforting for many of us who have — in one way or another — spent time as all three. Even as we are comforted, though, Jesus’ example calls us to be present to those in the same circumstances.
Jesus teaches us about these priorities — God’s priorities — by being attentive to them. This is made possible by the Incarnation: God has a body with which to speak, to comfort, and to offer in love. We have bodies to do the same.
Jesus Christ is “Emmanuel.” This means that he is God with us. Whatever image we might have of God living distantly on the top floor of the three-story house that is our world, it is forever changed by the event of his coming down and being with us: suffering, crying, laughing, telling stories, breaking bread, and showing us all how life and love are done. Instead of asking ourselves that perennial question, “What would Jesus do?” this Christmas, by focusing on the Incarnation we can begin asking directly, “What did Jesus do?” “What is Jesus doing?” and “How can I do the same?”