As any middle school student can tell you, the scientific method is a bedrock of modern thought. It observes sensible data, compares it to known truths, and eventually arrives at reasonably certain conclusions. Applying this process to contemporary life, one can reasonably say, “Our society, our culture, is dying.” Consider just a very few bits of evidence, observed in the papers this last year:
-Hollywood, which generates so much of our popular cultural output, is dominated by sequels, re-makes and series-films that are themselves just screen versions of pre-existing literature. What’s happened to our imaginations?
-The number suicides in the military (traditionally a bastion of lively self-confidence) is up.
For the first time in recent memory, the population of the United States has actually contracted… meaning that even including immigration, we are not generating enough life to replace those who die.
-And, of course, among those who are conceived far too many are terminated by abortion before they even have a chance to breathe; their mothers told by the richest society in history, “we cannot find the resources to support you and your child in this hour of need.”
-All of this in the midst of a particularly acrimonious, utterly cynical election cycle wherein those standing for office on all sides promoted themselves as our “saviors.” Right…
We see evidence in the Church too: In most of the parishes in which I’ve served, children no longer know all the words to traditional Christmas carols, nor to patriotic hymns. Asked to sing, even at a school play or concert, they will stare at their feet in muted embarrassment. The number of baptisms and weddings continues to drop, even in places where vibrant efforts are made (and may be slowly succeeding) at growing the number of adult converts to the Faith. Most of my priesthood has been spent in the suburbs. There, another phenomenon – itself an attempt at life – speaks to the state of culture. How many of us have been to a predominantly white, “anglo” parish where the choir or more often the choir/liturgy “director” foists upon the rest of the congregation hymns from a gospel tradition or lively music in Spanish… despite the fact that neither of those cultural expressions has ever been a part of the parish in question. It comes from the best of intentions: seeing a moribund congregation, the worship leader tries to draw from what he/she perceives as a more lively culture… and yet, the mixture, well-intended though it may be, really doesn’t work. Culture can’t be forced.
We might well be tempted to despair, but for the power of history: We’ve been here before. The Roman world of the 1st century had a lot in common with us. As devotion to the Olympian cult waned, people became very cynical. Attempts were made to patch together a new religious observance from the corners of the empire, but patch-work religion rarely generates real life. Peoples crushed under the boot of the legions watched as their heritage was subsumed and repackaged to serve the needs of the imperial state. Husbands and wives were traded in transactional marriages the resembled the horrific slave markets of the time, and fathers had the right to execute children born with defects by exposing them to the elements. Into this scene entered the author of life and culture, Jesus the Christ.
Jesus’ birth began a re-birth for the human soul, and from that re-birth flowed a new life-giving Christian culture that spread, not by the sword but by the compelling force of life’s own attractive beauty. It all began in a stable at Bethlehem… and it ca begin there again. Let’s consider for a moment those who gathered at the foot of the Infant Lord.
His mother and foster-father – Mary and Joseph- found themselves in a very irregular situation. Betrothed but not yet fully married, Mary was pregnant with someone else’s child, traveling by donkey as her due date approached. Why was she traveling? Because the conqueror of her people demanded that her husband register to pay taxes in the town of his birth. How would the child be born? How would he be explained? Would this first-century carpenter and his wife be good parents in the midst of a village of wagging tongues? Impossible questions for any human being to answer alone, but at the foot of the manger embracing the newborn King, they found in his love the ability to rejoice and proceed forward in hope.
The Shepherds – rejected by the polite society of towns and cities, shepherds scratched out a living in the provinces. They were uneducated, crude, and given how they were usually treated we may well suppose them to have been among the more cynical/purely practical members of an oppressed society. And yet… at the foot of the manger – one of their own feed stalls, by the way – looking at new life in Christ, somehow they found the joy and renewal needed to go out and proclaim truly good news to their neighbors.
The Magi – As Pope Benedict points out in Spe Salvi, the Magi represent the rationalistic pagan establishment of the time. They had followed the natural signs in the sky to a supernatural end. Gazing at the child in the manger, they were converted from philosophers to theologians, finding in him a message of joy and hope to bring back to their neighbors in pagan lands.
I don’t know what the precise roadmap will look like to rebuilding our society and culture, but I know this isn’t the first time western civilization has found itself in this condition. Whatever a life-giving future looks like, we can be certain that it will begin at the foot of the manger where we are loved by the Infant, Incarnate Lord. Spend some time over the next weeks in prayer there. Visit your parish manger scene, or sit before the tabernacle to be loved by the Lord. Who knows what life-giving inspiration may come.