Candles burn in the grotto where it is said Jesus was born under the Church of the Nativity. (photo: Rev. Leon V. Kofod)
A modern family travels to Bethlehem from Galilee in much the same way as Mary and Joseph did while awaiting the birth of Jesus. (photo: Rev. Leon V. Kofod)
With the Incarnation the hope of ages was fulfilled. Yet with each successive celebration of the feast of the Incarnation Christmas we still await the coming of Christ, both in our daily lives and in the Second Advent when he will come with great power and glory. (Luke 21:28) This is our hope for the future.
But for the present, our hope should be the hope of the Word made Flesh, That all may be one Shortly after Christmas we will spend a week of prayer for Christian Unity. The theme and tone for the 1977 Unity observance is expressed by Paul, This hope does not disappoint us, because Gods love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. (Romans 5:5)
Ideally, Christians live with a vision of the world in which there is no obstacle which cannot be conquered and become an opportunity for the creation of new life, new purpose. Their perspective on reality should be such that Christians believe the impossible can become, and indeed with the birth of Christ, has become the possible. God has initiated a new history, a new order of creation in which the impossible became the possible through the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
People at the time of Jesus resisted change. The Messiah was hoped for and expected, but he did not come in the manner they thought suitable, the way they expected. He was born of poor parents, worked as a poor carpenter, and expected a change of heart and mind from his followers. Often we find that our own preconceived notions about the unity of all Christians, the Ecumenical movement, can be impediments to the very change of heart and mind that Christ requires. Our hope is especially tested when the temptation is felt to substitute fear of the unknown and unexpected for imaginative and bold decisions in our search for reconciliation and integrity. Like many people 2000 years ago, we cannot recognize Christ disguised in situations we are afraid to face.
Christian hope should look primarily to the future to gain the inspiration needed to move beyond all divisions. Jesus announced an advent a kingdom that is coming. The dream the Christian has of the church is the church of tomorrow in which all different expressions of Christian faith will converge, will come together and share what is held in common, and will complement one another. If the Christian churches had only disunity, and no unity in the Word Incarnate, we should despair. As it is, we have room for hope.
Christian hope, however, has an adversary fear. Anxiety about the future what is to come is a constraining factor in the churches today and puts a considerable obstacle in the way of ecumenical progress. Fear takes on various subtle forms: that correct doctrine will be compromised; that identity will not be respected; that indifference and confusion will replace clarity and truth. Some say that they fear the internal disputes of the individual churches is a block to unity.
All these fears are realities, yet Christians might take a lesson from Mary, fearing for her unborn child on a journey into a strange town when her time was near. Fear did not keep her from moving on, and it did not prevent her from giving birth to the Promise.
Although the hopeful Christian believes in a common future for the churches, he or she believes as a realist. A Christian who awaits with hope the advent of a new heaven and a new earth is one who affirms the paradoxical character of people and people make up the various churches. So the task for us as Christians is not to deny our problems and differences but to move on with hope, and wait for the coming of the day when we are all one in Christ. The task before the churches is as new as the Word that has given the churches birth, See I am doing something new. Now it springs forth, do you perceive it? says the Lord. (Isaiah 43:19)
Those who view the search for unity as not a new thing but as Gods will, and the unfolding of his new history with the birth of Christ, will hope for it with great joy. They will see in it a foretaste of what the fullness of human unity will be after the Second Advent when we will have the assurance of things hoped for. God will live among men and make his home among them; they shall be his people, and he will be their God; his name is Emmanuel God-with-them. (Revelation 21: 3).
Father Gouthro is Director of the Graymoor Ecumenical Institute, Garrison, New York.