Thus the total number of generations from Abraham to David is fourteen generations; from David to the Babylonian exile, fourteen generations; from the Babylonian exile to the Christ, fourteen generations.Matthew 1:17
Given his audience, Matthew begins his gospel by asserting the credentials of Jesus as the long awaited Messiah. This is not unlike the practice throughout antiquity of introducing a god through his or her lineage. The later gospel of John will begin with Jesus’ Divine lineage, but for Matthew it is vital to establish that Jesus is indeed the longed for and promised Messiah. For us, however, the lineage of Jesus is a reminder of the Divine and human interaction through which the Kingdom of God is revealed. It includes men and women of every stripe and experience. Their lives, like all of ours, are lives of sin and virtue, of success and failure, of acceptance and rejection, of kindness and cruelty. And yet, we see in retrospect that through it all the way of the Lord was being prepared.
Advent is the church’s reminder to us that we live in a present that is a way to a promised future, that there is a vertical as well as a horizontal significance to every moment of our lives. Adrian van Kaam writes: “As a forming presence, we really encounter people, events, and things in our many formative or deformative dispositions and interactions. Therefore, the formation mystery only reveals itself to us in its manifold concrete manifestations when we are formatively present in the many modes of daily lived encounter.” The Mystery reveals itself in our lives only to the degree that we are encountering others and the world in formative presence.
In the space in which I find myself this Advent, I am continually reflecting upon the formative nature of my presence during the months of the past year. What do we mean by formative presence and what is involved in it? It is encountering the persons, situations, and world we inhabit out of the awareness that we are in continual interformation with them. As a result, we are either engaged with others formatively or deformatively. As personal and spiritual, our presence is never merely neutral. To encounter mindlessly or “neutrally” is actually dehumanizing and deformative.
Adrian van Kaam points out that our presence to and so interformation with the world as a whole is always a mediated presence. It is mediated through the current situation in which we find ourselves. When I think about my work environment of the recent past, I am acutely aware and saddened by the poor quality of our presence and interformative relationship to and with each other. Too many times our presence to each other was, as van Kaam puts it, more like the “stones, brooms, or vegetables.” That is we inhabited a space which, by our distance and inertia, subjected us “blindly to the nonhuman mechanical formation processes that rule the world of things.” We far too often failed to engage each other with the responsibility and care that our human interformation required.
I am becoming increasingly aware that to the degree that I and we failed to show responsibility toward the formation rather than deformation of each other, we also failed our world which suffers so much from the same sense of alienation and irresponsibility. To fail in the immediate situation to be a formative presence for others I am directly encountering is to hinder rather than serve the manifestation of the Mystery, of the Kingdom of God, in their lives and so in the wider world as well.
On the other hand, I am so gratefully aware of those persons who by the quality of their presence and relationship served the manifestation of the Mystery, of God’s love, for me. Most of all the Mystery is manifest in our lives through the ways that “we form, cultivate, humanize, and personalize society, history, situation, and world by our formative personal and social presence.” In the formative quality of their presence to me, their own willingness to give and receive form in our encounter, I experienced a space where what is most distinctively human in me could be formed, cultivated, and humanized, and where together we became a space of greater humanization and spiritualization of “society, history, situation, and world.” Simply put it is in and through such a presence that my own life changes, grows, and becomes more fully the unique image of God for the world I am called to be.
The lives of those that Matthew chooses to inhabit his genealogy remind us that the road to humanization and spiritualization is often quite rough and tortuous. The stories of Tamar and of David, among so many others, are at various times confused, desperate, and even evil. And yet, suggests Matthew, all of this is the path to the arrival of the Messiah. As with these biblical personages, every aspect of our own lives, can be a source of not only our own formation but of that our immediate situation and our world. There is nothing that is part of our experience that lacks the potential to be formative. For this to be true, however, we need to learn how to be present to our lives, to others, and to the world in a formative way. We need to learn a mode of thinking that is not merely “informative” but also, and primarily, formative.
Formative thinking or reflection is a way of looking at life in the mode of discipleship. We are coforming subjects of our lives. It is the very nature and quality of our presence that influences the form we give to the world and the form we receive from it. So, to really live humanely and spiritually, to really live in the expectation of the coming of the Lord, is to be ever reforming those dispositions of heart that constitute our mode of presence. It is attending to the formative or deformative movements of our inner lives and working to reform or to strengthen them. In scriptural terms it is living in a state of continuing repentance and conversion so that we may ever more faithfully express our unique call and also encounter the reality of the other.
According to van Kaam, every culture requires some “centers of value radiation” if the culture is not to lose contact with certain basic human values. In the “developed” countries of the west, the so-called “industrialized democracies,” there seems at the moment to be a great danger of being overwhelmed and perhaps destroyed by fragmentation and tribalism. Increasingly we cease to encounter each other but rather live in a depersonalized society. Because we are always interforming, this depersonalization is a deformation of our distinctively human lives. Thus, our culture is in desperate need of centers of radiation of the values of encounter, shared responsibility, and a respectful and reverent interformative community. In the midst of all of the forms that our societal violence inflicts on us all, we find ourselves desperately in need of such formative and non-violent spaces.
At every moment the Mystery is manifesting itself. Yet, we must be available to that coming of the Lord. That availability comes through our formative presence “in the many modes of daily lived encounter.” Because we are inherently communal beings, we need each other to help us not only to maintain such a presence but to cultivate it. It is in the context of community that we can recognize the manifestation of the Mystery even in the smallest and most unfortunate of circumstances and experiences. Today’s gospel reminds us of the great larger community of faith of which we are a part. It is our responsibility to incarnate this larger community in our own lives and situations, to create spaces of interformation in which we individually and together coform our own lives and the life of our world in such ways that cultivate, humanize, and personalize the lives of each of us and the societies in which we live.
We, as humans, are coformed by the people with whom we live, by the situation and the world in which we dwell; we in turn coform our life and world. We form, cultivate, humanize, and personalize society history, situation, and world by our formative personal and social presence. We are not in history, world, or society as stones in a wall, brooms in a closet, vegetables in a freezer. Such objects do not engage in meaningful interformation; they are subjected blindly to the nonhuman mechanical formation processes that rule the world of things.
We are formatively or deformatively engaged in history, world, and society. We are concerned about our formation as no stone, broom, or vegetable can be. Through our forming presence, we have become familiar with the situation, world, society, and history we share. We find ourselves irritated, annoyed, fascinated, depressed, bored, excited by the people, events, and things with whom we interact. In and through our forming presence, we find ourselves using, developing, organizing, accepting, rejecting, explaining, fostering, cultivating, questioning, searching, and discussing people, events, and things.
The stone, the broom, and the vegetable never find themselves in any of these formative or deformative attitudes or interactions with regard to the things that surround them. They are merely alongside other things in the same container, undergoing the same mechanical formation processes of which they are only the object—never the coforming subject. As a forming presence, we really encounter people, events, and things in our many formative or deformative dispositions and interactions. Therefore, the formation mystery only reveals itself to us in its manifold concrete manifestations when we are formatively present in the many modes of daily lived encounter.Adrian van Kaam, Fundamental Formation, p. 49