He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end.
Luke 1: 32
This Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Advent, we awaken to news of a horrific attack by means of a truck being deliberately driving into a crowded Christmas fair in Berlin, the assassination of the Russian Ambassador in Ankara, and the murder of 3 at an Islamic Center in Zurich. All this while the people of Syria continue to suffer the ravages of a shameless and ruthless war, the people of South Sudan continue to die in an seemingly endless civil war, and the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo teeter on the edge of violence and chaos. The story that we especially remember these days in preparation for our celebration of Christmas stands in such stark contrast to the brutality, horror, and willful human ignorance of our daily experience. What does it mean to say that of God’s and Christ’s “Kingdom there will be no end”?
To be a Christian believer is to trust that the Incarnation is the central and defining moment of human life and history. We proclaim that human destiny has been revealed to be that of consummate redemption and reunion of God and humanity. With Jesus we have come to know truly that God is with us — not with some, not with merely a privileged many, but universally — the poor and barren, the shepherds, the foreigners. It is very difficult, though, to see, as Mary says to the Angel, how this can be, given the apparent reality we face each day. In the face of the seemingly intractable suffering that we humans inflict on each other so relentlessly, it is a struggle not to seek refuge in the sentimentalizing of our traditions and beliefs, in a dissociating of them from the harsh realities of our world.
Yesterday I participated with others in a meeting of a task force on Catholic and Xaverian identity in one of our high schools. In the course of an excellent presentation on models of church, the presenter showed a slide of people fleeing the destruction of the city of Aleppo in Syria. He then asked each of us the question: “With whom, in this photo, do you identify?” There was an aged woman in the front; very frightened children behind her, and a person in a wheelchair to one side. As my attention moved from one to the other, I realized that in different ways I identified with each one: the older woman who had certainly lived through so much pain in her life and even up to now saw in the children the repetition of those cycles of violence and needless suffering, the children who were so frightened and struggling to escape and to become survivors for some added years, and the person whose escape was inhibited by her physical limitations and illness. If we dissociate and separate from each other, then whether or not we say “Merry Christmas” is meaningless. God is “with us,” not with me. Not with my kind or my tribe or my nation but with all. Of God’s “kingdom there will be no end” but it is not a kingdom of our making.
In Luke 7:24-5 Jesus speaks of John the Baptist: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? Look, those who wear elegant clothing and live in luxury are found in palaces.” From the very beginning, the kingdom of God stands in stark contrast to what we expect, and perhaps even hope for. The President Elect of the United States recently said to a rally of his supporters: “People complain that I am choosing millionaires for my cabinet. Isn’t that what we want?” We all tend to think that God is to be found where our wants are gratified. Yet, the kingdom of God, unlike our kingdoms, is very much in disguise and it’s truth within us is manifest when we recognize and identify with its presence in those who are walking the way of the Cross. The Syrian civil defense forces are called the “White Helmets.” They are volunteers who in the midst of the shelling and the carnage dig into the rubble with their bare hands in order to attempt to rescue persons who are buried beneath. When they are successful, they cry out every time “God be praised.” Thousands of times adults and children are “born” again due to their heroism and love. Yes, there are the bombs that rain down upon the people, but then there is the incarnation of God in the selfless and heroic work of these ordinary people.
Daily life so often gives rise to deep doubt. Do we tell ourselves the story of Christmas in order to survive the relentless selfishness, violence, and horror of the human condition? Do we need to imagine a time after this life when there will be peace and love and joy in order to make it through the course of our years and the brutal events of our history? Or, is what the gospel proclaims profoundly true? Perhaps every time we, in our own much smaller and less heroic ways, “in the common and ordinary and unspectacular flow of everyday life” leave our self-preoccupation in favor of the life of another, we incarnate anew, for a moment in time and in a limited space, the kingdom of which there truly will be no end.
As my dear, soon-departing president well understood, in this world there is only incremental progress. Only the willfully blind can ignore that the history of human existence is simultaneously the history of pain: of brutality, murder, mass extinction, every form of venality and cyclical horror. No land is free of it; no people are without their bloodstain; no tribe entirely innocent. But there is still this redeeming matter of incremental progress. It might look small to those with apocalyptic perspectives, but to she who not so long ago could not vote, or drink from the same water fountain as her fellow citizens, or marry the person she chose, or live in a certain neighborhood, such incremental change feels enormous.
. . . I am very happy to accept this great honor—please donʼt mistake me. I am more than happy—I am amazed. When I started to write I never imagined that anyone outside of my neighborhood would read these books, never mind outside of England, never mind “on the continent,” as my father liked to call it. I remember how stunned I was to embark on my very first European book tour, to Germany, with my father, who had last been here in 1945, as a young soldier in the reconstruction. It was a trip filled, for him, with nostalgia: he had loved a German girl, back in 1945, and one of his great regrets, he admitted to me on that trip, was not marrying her and instead coming home, to England, and marrying first one woman and then another, my mother.
We made a funny pair on that tour, Iʼm sure: a young black girl and her elderly white father, clutching our guidebooks and seeking those spots in Berlin that my father had visited almost fifty years earlier. It is from him that I have inherited both my optimism and my despair, for he had been among the liberators at Belsen and therefore seen the worst this world has to offer, but had, from there, gone forward, with a sufficiently open heart and mind, striding into one failed marriage and then another, marrying both times across various lines of class, color, and temperament, and yet still found in life reasons to be cheerful, reasons even for joy.
Zadie Smith, On Optimism and Despair, New York Review of Books, December 22, 2016