The Incarnation and Social Teaching
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
During Advent we hear the prophets of the Old Testament foretell the coming of Christ with words that describe the creation of a new society. They preach about the end of oppression, justice for the poor, peace prevailing over violence, punishment of the wicked, and rewards for the humble. In one of the most beautiful phrases, Malachi proclaims that “there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”
The message, stated again and again by the prophets, appears to point to a new world order, one in which things are made right. In this respect, the prophets sound like they are predicting the coming of a great politician, king, or president.
It should come as no surprise then that so many of Jesus’ contemporaries could not accept that he was the Messiah foretold by the prophets. Jesus was decidedly non-political. He did not seek civil leadership. He did not start an insurgency against the Roman occupiers. Although he talked about the Kingdom of God, listeners were left confused. Jesus’ Kingdom of God did not match their perceptions of how that kingdom would come about. By most appearances, Jesus did not bring about a “New Jerusalem.” Jerusalem was the same as it was before his death and resurrection.
Perhaps there were some then, as there are today, that readjusted their interpretation of the prophecies to mean something to happen at the end of the ages or in heaven itself. To the apostles, disciples, and the Church Fathers, however, Christ himself was the fulfillment of those very social prophecies. Their fulfillment does not exist in some distant future or place,
The key to understanding this conundrum is found in what we celebrate at Christmas - the Incarnation. Christmas is not just about celebrating the nativity story or even the life of Jesus. Those aspects have no real meaning unless we contemplate and rejoice in the Incarnation.
By becoming man God “in a certain way united Himself with each man.” (Redemptor Hominis, 8) The equal dignity of each human person was restored. The dignity of the poor, the widow, the alien, the imprisoned was raised. Without the Incarnation, there would be no real justification for respecting the life and dignity of every human person. If you want proof, study history. Until this time no society ever contemplated equal dignity of persons. Oppression was justifiable because the worth of an individual was determined by those in power. Only when God became like all of us could we begin to treat everyone as an image of God. The Incarnation is politically radical because it is theologically radical.
We still fall short. Nascent human life is used and destroyed as mere material. Unborn children are killed for convenience. Noncombatants are intentionally targeted. People still go without basic health care, education, shelter, security, food, and decent working conditions. People are still mistreated because of the color of their skin, their religion, and their legal status.
The Incarnation, which we celebrate this Christmas, however, provides the road-map for addressing these problems and all our affairs. Because God became man our politics, business, and economic decisions must reflect that whatever we do for the least among us, we do for Him.