Advent has the worst timing. Having lived the vast majority of my life on an academic schedule, I can’t help but feel like I don’t have the time to sit, reflect, discern, and pray. All this waiting and preparing. Last week of class. Finals. And then a sprint to get ready for Christmas. Who has time for Advent?
Still, this Advent Season seems all the more meaningful because of Pope Francis’ declaration of the Jubilee of Mercy. If there’s one thing the world could use right now, it seems to be mercy: the kind of heart-melting compassion that brings us closer to the suffering of others. A fundamental requirement for kinship and solidarity. The essential characteristic of being “Women and Men for and with Others.” The recipe to love all.
In working to overcome obstacles to practicing mercy, Pope Francis has dedicated his upcoming 2016 World Day of Peace Message to the theme, “Overcome Indifference.” And that is exactly the challenge I need right now, stuck in this swirling vortex of end-of-semester-stress and Christmas-preparation-frenzy.
My agenda, my to-list, can give me a one-track mind. This is the time to “buckle down and take care of business.” That makes it incredibly hard for me to make time for other people, much less have the presence of mind to be attentive to them, to mercifully encounter them as they are, and be fully present with them, and summon the generosity of spirit to give them what they need in that moment.
Instead, indifference becomes my buffer. I focus on my needs, my priorities, and my viewpoints. Who has time to worry about other people? Or to make their problems my problem? I have enough problems!
This is why I love mercy. And the Season of Advent. In these moments of self-deception where I think that my agenda is the only one that matters, or that my problems are the only ones worth dealing with, I am returned to the story of Jesus’ birth. The details are familiar and easily taken-for-granted: here we have a very pregnant (and scared) teenage girl, an older man (who has thought about leaving this girl but convinced in a dream to do the right thing and stand by her), who are travelling far from home and no one is willing to receive them. No one opens their door to this poor, frightened, displaced couple. Everyone is too busy, too self-involved, too protective of their own plan or stuff, or simply too apathetic to make room for them. Except one guy who clears out a stall in his barn. So God enters the world in human form in the middle of barnyard chaos: animals (think: loud, smelly, shedding hair, drooling all over the place), hay, and manure (imagine the smell!). Because no one makes room for Jesus to enter the world, Emmanuel (“God-with-us”) takes the lowest possible position in the world.
And history repeats, because I struggle with making room for others, even with 4 weeks of Advent dedicated to preparing myself to be more open to receiving the God who comes in radical solidarity with the least, last, and lowly.
Dorothy Day once wrote, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” There is no better time for me to reflect honestly about how well I’ve been loving others, especially others who are challenging for me to love.
As an ethicist, I usually think in 3 levels: the personal, the social, and the structural.
So as I do the work of preparing myself for the Feast of the Incarnation on December 25th, I’ve been thinking about how to be a better lover with the people in my life. I have work to do as a husband and father, as a son and brother, grandson and uncle, neighbor, friend, and colleague. Even more specifically, I need to be more merciful with the people I struggle to love: the students who blow off my assignments (whose lackadaisical approach to academics jars with the intense passion I feel for these subjects), the people who seem selfish, ungrateful, or cold-hearted (who seem too cruel to deserve my kindness), or individuals who come across as arrogant, stubborn, or condescending (they don’t care about me anyway, right?). It’s far too easy for me to think they should conform to my outlook, my priorities, and my values – or that they aren’t worthy of them in the first place. But that makes me a judgmental jerk rather than an agent of mercy. You could say that being judgmental is the polar opposite of being merciful. And I’ve been trained to judge other people since I was a kid: this is how to know where I stand in the world, either with the people I respect, admire, and want to emulate or the people I definitely don’t.
Expanding this thinking to a broader social-consciousness, I think about the kind of community we’re building here at Xavier or in Cincinnati. At XU, we take pride in being “Women and Men for and with Others” and in the spirit of “Cura Personalis,” we emphasize caring for the whole person. But this campus is not immune from racism, sexism, or homophobia. Not all people are treated equally. We don’t always make time for the needs of those around us. And at our worst, some of us actually victimize other members of our community. We read reports of substance abuse, theft, and sexual violence. Scrolling through Yik Yak, I see a lot of heartbreak, a lot of people who feel excluded, alienated, or alone. And I ask myself, how can we be more merciful with ourselves, and one another, even in the midst of so much pressure to perform, achieve, and excel? If we are to be merciful because God is merciful, then how do we fashion a community of mercy at Xavier?
Finally, in thinking about this at a national or global scale, it’d be hard to miss the need for mercy. Our country and world are torn apart by violence and terror. Refugees are fleeing for their lives. And religious differences seem to grow ever more tense. Political leaders are calling for us to close our borders and a rising number of Americans view Muslims with suspicion or fear. In the face of so much chaos, distrust, and division, mercy seems like an overly optimistic ideal. What could I possibly do for the victims of violence, for migrants and refugees, or for others being targeted by xenophobia, anti-Semitism, or Islamophobia? Isn’t it enough for me not to be violent, to forgo hatred, or refuse to exclude?
Indifference is so seductive. Those people. Over there. Not my problem.
Indifference tells me they are not my responsibility. Even if they are members of the same human family. Even if they are U.S. citizens. Even if they live in the same city or go to the same school. Even if they live in my building, sit in the same class, or are knocking on my door, looking for a little kindness in their time of need. Just a place to feel welcome, a place to rest, a place to bring a child – God-with-us – into the world. History repeats. It’s too hard to make room.
What does Advent require? Yes, that we slow down, be still, and make time to prepare ourselves for God who comes to share life with us in loving solidarity with all. Even more, Advent requires that we overcome the indifference that insulates us in busyness, distracts us from self-awareness, clouds our appreciation for others, and blinds us to the responsibilities we bear for right-relationship with our neighbors, no matter who they are.
How do we overcome indifference? Openness. Being open to an agenda that isn’t mine, a viewpoint or perspective that differs from my own. Being open to a reality that is bigger than me. Being open to sharing that reality together in a spirit of honesty and vulnerability, humility and mutuality, courage and compassion. Openness is what is needed to be “Women and Men for and with Others.” Openness is the first step to loving all others. And openness keeps us from excluding some people from that love, reminded by Dorothy Day’s line that our love for God is only as great as the love we have for those we love the least.
For some, it might be hard to love someone who is radically different from us, someone we don’t understand or who seems strange. For others, it’s hardest to love those who are closest to us, particularly a friend or family member who may have hurt us or someone else we love. And for still others, the hardest person for us to love is our self: we might be tempted to think that our mistakes outweigh any good we can do, or that we amount to more of a burden on our loved ones than anything else. But in these cases we lose sight of the fact that, as Genesis 1:26-31 reminds us, God created humanity in God’s own image and likeness (that is, we reflect the Divine in our very being, not because of anything we do or fail to do) and God finds us to be “very good.” In that spirit (and in great pride as a professor), this amazing video (designed by two Xavier students) provides us a powerful reminder that to “love all” needs to begin with loving ourselves. And that the first step to love requires that we embrace the good within ourselves and be open to the good in each and every person we encounter.
So let us pray for openness in the remaining days of Advent. And may we never stop working to open wide our minds, our hearts, and our hands. Openness is how we receive – and share – the loving goodness of God always in our midst.
Marcus Mescher is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics in Xavier’s Theology Department. He specializes in Catholic social thought and enjoys reading, writing, and being part of conversations at the intersection of theology and culture. When he’s not thinking about the connections between faith and everyday life, he’s delighting in being with his wife, Anne, and his sons, Noah and Benjamin.