Jesus told us to be simple, like little children. This message didn’t quite make it through to the iconographers, who made the icon of Christ’s birth one of the most complicated. In the Nativity icon Mary sits with the swaddled Christ in a cave in the centre of the image, evoking the womb, the tomb and the heart, the spiritual centre of the soul. The ox and ass peer into his cradle, made to look like a coffin. The three wise men process with their gifts in the top left corner. Angels preach the good news to bemused shepherds. Two women wash Christ in a prefiguring of his baptism. And the devil, disguised as a traveller in ragged furs, sows doubts about the virginity of Mary in the mind of a clearly frustrated and exhausted Joseph, depicted in the Eastern style as an elderly man.
It’s a busy icon, and with all this activity going on – washing, journeying, announcing, cradling, doubting – it’s easy to forget that it is God who is the one who has acted in the icon. Christ, born to Mary as a little child, has sought out his people and come to dwell in the centre of his own creation. Indeed, the notion that we attract goodness through all this incessant struggling through a kind of karmic bargain has nothing whatsoever to do with why Christ became man; humankind did not somehow press our claim on God to become a human being, nor did we “deserve it”.
Rather, as St Athanasius the Great argues quite forcefully in On the Incarnation, it was beneath God to let us remain forever alone in the squalor of sin and ignorance. The initiative to save us was his. The work was his. And he did it for the sake of his own dignity as creator. “It was not worthy of the goodness of God that those created by him should be corrupted through the deceit wrought by the devil upon human beings,” Athanasius wrote.
For Sydneysiders, who despite our claims to a laid-back lifestyle are some of the most work-mad people in the developed world, the idea that God was not moved by our efforts to save us is perhaps a maddening one. We do not respond well to arguments to stop, to do less, to have less, even to desire less. But as Simone Weil wrote in Waiting for God, to think that God needs us to come to him on some kind of spiritual quest is to misread the whole theme of the Incarnation, and is like trying to reach heaven by jumping there. After all, the Gospels tell us that God comes to us when we least expect it: like a thief in the night or a Master returning from a journey, interrupting our buying, selling, eating, drinking and marrying, our family lives, our settled conventions and plans.
Will Christians in Sydney ever learn this? The yoke of the Egyptians feels heavier than usual on Sydney’s shoulders; the city seems to be resisting all attempts to gently bring 2022 to a close. On the individual level we are trying to make up for wasted time during the COVID pandemic, finishing projects and chasing ambitions. Everyone is still trying to do Christmas as “business as usual” despite the events of the last few years. And many people are contracting COVID again, some sick for the third or fourth time. Others are just sick of it all and want a break. The boldest among us even dare to peek over Christ’s manger at the work of the year to come.
As a community, city and nation we are working harder for less, because of inflation and energy prices. The war in Ukraine continues, breeding anxiety even as far away as Sydney.
And we find ourselves facing an increasing number of new ethical and spiritual dilemmas in areas once thought settled: life and death, gender and sexuality, the freedom of religion and conscience. Catholics, as always, find themselves in the midst of all these issues, as leaders, workers, parents, and even journalists.
But as Athanasius wrote, it’s not our business that is the foundation of eternal life, no matter how much we feel like we must “work to live”. God’s work precedes ours in every respect, including in efficiency – what takes us a lifetime to fail at alone, God achieves for us even before we were born. So in these last few weeks of the work year, we here at The Catholic Weekly encourage you to quest a little bit less, to relax your grip on 2022, to cast your eye into the manger rather than next year’s to-do list. Stop, and let God save you.