On the last Saturday of Advent I was first in line for confessions at a local parish, which offers the sacrament between its afternoon and evening masses. Others filled in beside me, and the pastor returned from greeting parishioners, standing before us as he asked whether we were there for reconciliation and taking off his wireless mic (major sacramental fail adverted!). He entered the confessional, and as I turned to follow him I caught the eye of a parishioner next to me, who said with a sad and wry smile, “Now he’ll know us.”
As someone who has often chosen the screen over face-to-face confession, I caught the meaning—no anonymity remained beyond the seal of the confessional itself. Yet being known is essential to Christian identity. As Pope Francis said, we’re known—and come to know ourselves—as sinners in need of mercy. That is not always easy knowledge to have, and perhaps what is most difficult for me is not simply the personal knowledge of my sinfulness, but the awareness that others know it, too.
“Now God knows us” in the incarnation, even though such intimate knowledge may not always seem cause for celebration.* God knows us in our rampant injustices and in our petty jealousies; in our lack of love and in our abundant greed; in our outraged condemnation of others and in our prevaricating self-justification.
Yet “now we know God” through the incarnation as well: the mystery of the trinity in whose likeness we are made, and whose image we are called to embody.** One thing we know is that God does not get a taste of our humanity and abandon us to our mutual self-destructions. Rather, when the Son takes on our nature it’s with an eternal fullness and finality that death cannot conquer.
We may be tempted to escape from the sin and suffering of the world into the magical illusion of Christmas romanticism: a world in which we are known as we wish to be rather than as we are, and where we lay claim to the gods we create rather than the God who creates us. Yet if God’s holiness is known in unity with humanity, then ours ought to be as well. The holiness we imitate in Christ sends us into a mission of union with others, binding up our fragmented lives through the anguished and graced work of incarnating reconciliation, love, and justice in our families, communities and world.
Now God knows us. Now we know God.
*I’m not denying God’s knowledge outside the incarnation; rather, in the incarnation God knows us through the Son’s humanity, which is a different mode of knowing that the divine mode.
**The Trinity is an inexhaustible mystery that in humility we must admit we can never know entirely.