Tis the season for Advent reflection, and so I’ve been doing the work by revisiting a spiritual classic: The Reed of God by twentieth-century British writer Caryll Houselander. I was struck by this truth: how we answer the question “Who is the Christ Child?” is paramount. If Advent is preparation for the Nativity of Our Lord, the most important thing to know is the identity of the baby we are preparing to receive on Christmas Day.
But the question “Who is Jesus?” is not a simple one to answer. In The Reed of God, Houselander shares wise insights on the difficulty of knowing Christ as he really is. Rather than worshiping the true God, we often unknowingly build idols, or as Houselander puts it, invent an “imaginary Christ who fits into our own narrowness, who does not shatter our complacency.” Whether we see Christ as a revolutionary, a tyrant, a nice guy, or a wise teacher, our view will color our theology and our practice. For instance, if we believe that God is vigilantly watching and waiting for us to trip up, ever ready to take offense, we may fall into scrupulosity. If we believe God is a cosmic Santa Claus, we will not concern ourselves with the gravity of his justice. If we imagine God to be like a jealous husband, we will begin to view love for our fellow man to be in competition with our love for God rather than an extension and outpouring of his Divine Love. “It is easy to see that people become like their conception of God: hard if it is hard; flabby if it is soft; cruel if it is cruel,” Houselander warns. We build idols—often in our own image—and call them Christ. And what we worship is what we become.
Different theological trends can help to build false Christs in the image of prevailing cultural fashions, picking and choosing the attributes that are most comfortable, that require the least of us, and that most firmly advance our ideological tribalism. Writer Anne Lamott describes our tendency to make an idol of God by pointing out, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” I’m convicted every time I read that quote.
Amidst all the noise of 2020, I found myself disoriented as various factions claimed a Jesus that would support their ideology. Some clarity arrived with the Word on Fire Bible (Volume I): The Gospels. For the first time in years, I read the four Gospels from start to finish. I reacquainted myself with Jesus, meditating on his words. In her reflections on idols, Houselander muses, “We all know that there is a tendency to skip or skim through those passages in the Gospel which disconcert us, and to form a conception, not only of Christ, but of His special relationship to ourselves, by the passages which are as we say most ‘consoling’ to us.” By reading straight through rather than picking and choosing my favorite passages, I had to encounter a more challenging Christ. The lines given to false Christs on social media rang hollow in comparison to the Jesus of the Gospels who fit into no narrow boxes and who seemed determined to shatter my complacency.
Houselander reminds us, “Nothing matters more than having a true knowledge of Christ.” But how can we be certain who he is? Houselander argues that our need to discover the true Christ beyond the idols we craft motivates us to follow Our Lady’s footsteps to search for the lost Child Jesus. Like Mary, we must go looking for him. We must truly search. Without embarking on this quest, we will try to content ourselves with idols that can never satisfy. Houselander claims, “We should never know the real beauty of Christ: we should not become whole.”
So how can we seek him this Advent, so that we may know Jesus—Jesus as he is, rather than as we would mold him?
We can seek him in the Holy Scriptures—by reading through at least one of the Gospels in its entirety we can avoid focusing on the passages that are most comfortable to us.
We can seek him in the poor—accepting the reality that what we do for the least of these we do for Christ himself.
We can seek him in spiritual reading—Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives is a beautiful resource for exploring the question “Who is Jesus?”
We can seek him in the sacrament—attending Mass, frequenting the sacrament of Reconciliation.
We can seek him in prayer—perhaps spending time in Eucharistic Adoration, where he is present in the Blessed Sacrament, and there we can ask him in particular to tear down the false Christs that we’ve built to make room for the Christ Child who comes to shatter the complacency of the world in the Incarnation.