December 25th marks the start, not the end, of the Christmas season. For the next few weeks Catholics will celebrate the joyful mystery of the Incarnation. But we also know that in the United States there is another “liturgical” season in full swing that will likely captivate the hearts and minds of most Christians—the 2016 Presidential Election Season.The “talking points,” and narratives driving both seasons cannot be more different. A prime example of this is the campaign of Donald Trump—though all the candidates share this basic tension. In many ways, Trump reflects the worst parts of American culture including deep traditions of xenophobia, individualism, and narcissism. Trump’s power comes largely from the ways he taps into a deep anxiety in American culture—particularly among White men—that somehow America has lost its way, it’s no longer a “great nation.” A recent study, for example, found that “72 percent of Americans say their country isn’t as great as it once was.” But what does it really mean to be great?
The Christmas season offers Christians a very different model of greatness than the one that is assumed in presidential debates and campaign ads . Consider, for example, the model of greatness embodied in Mary’s song of praise in the Magnificat:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior…. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.” (Luke 1:46-55)
Or the many readings from the Prophet Isaiah read this season, including this one from the Midnight Mass:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…For the yoke that burdened them, the pole on their shoulder, and the rod of their taskmaster you have smashed…For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” (IS 9:1-6)
The prophetic words of Mary and Isaiah reveal something important about the true meaning of greatness. Their vision stands in sharp contrast to narcissistic worldviews that define greatness by wealth, military domination, race, or social status. While Tump’s campaign certainly displays these inordinate and dangerous conceptions of greatness, his is not the only one. In American society today, across the political spectrum, it is almost a given that greatness comes from power, prestige, and possessions. Arrogance and pride are uplifted as virtues while humility and mercy are despised.
In a world where greatness is aligned with power, the whole story of Christmas, like the Crucifixion, is scandalous and even a bit baffling. Our God does not choose to come in the form of a warrior-king, a Steve Jobs type corporate giant, a prize-winning athlete, or Marvel Comic superhero. Our God does not privilege the rich and the arrogant. Our God is not on the side of dominating taskmasters. Rather, the God of everlasting mercy and love chooses to “humble himself” (Phil 2:8) and become one of us and in particular one of the poorest among us, an infant, the child of a poor, oppressed woman who lives on the margins of a ruthless empire. A child, who, like the millions of Syrians today, would experience life as a refugee.
Earlier this year, I gained a deeper appreciation for the Incarnation with the birth of our son, Finnian Arrupe. Eager to see the world, Finn arrived six weeks early and had to be in a neonatal intensive care unit for two weeks. Upon seeing our son in a neonatal incubator with a paper mask shielding his eyes from the lights and tubes all over him, I learned more about greatness and the nature of the Incarnation in those few moments than in a decade of studying and teaching theology. As a parent I wanted to take his place. But if I could not do that, I, at the very least, wanted to crawl up into the incubator and be with him.
Perhaps this resembles in some way what our God experiences when gazing upon her beloved creation. In a certain sense as human beings and members of this broken ecosystem, we are all in need of intensive care. We are fragile. But we are not alone in our fragility. God, Emmanuel, is with us.
And this is the great news of the incarnation. God, the ultimate mystery chose to become like us–to enter into our space of suffering. Like the babies in the NICU or the babies born in Syrian refugee camps, the infant Jesus was insignificant to the prevailing systems of economic and political power. Yet God’s action to become one of us makes the little ones—and by extension the entirety of God’s creation—very significant. And here we get a clear sense of what greatness really means.
Real greatness, then, is not found in building walls, dominating others, or accumulating large amounts of wealth. It’s not found in “manning up” and denying our vulnerability. Real greatness is found in going out those on the margins. It means being with others in their suffering, not causing it. Greatness means following the example of Christ and cooperating with the Holy Spirit to bring about a more just and peaceful world for everyone. In his Christmas homily, Pope Francis, who has been a model of Christian greatness, speaks to this very point:
“In a society so often intoxicated by consumerism and hedonism, wealth and extravagance, appearances and narcissism, this Child calls us to act soberly, in other words, in a way that is simple, balanced, consistent, capable of seeing and doing what is essential…Amid a culture of indifference which not infrequently turns ruthless, our style of life should instead be devout, filled with empathy, compassion and mercy, drawn daily from the wellspring of prayer.”
Herein lies the power of the Christmas season. As we continue on this Christmas journey, let us pray rethink our own assumptions of power and greatness. Does greatness for followers of Christ look more like a dominating millionaire running for public office or a vulnerable infant born in a manger? You decide.