We are surely aware that our Catholic Church has suffered horrible scandal in recent years. We are still reeling from that scandal, and we are all shamed by a history of silence and denial as abusive clergy have left all kinds of victims in their wake. This is certainly not the only scandal for which the Church has been responsible in the ages of history, and perhaps not even the worst. We have seen the human and sinful side of the Church, the part that is always in need of change and reform, and it is an ugly sight. It is a darkness that can blur the other side of the Church, its divine side. Its ugliness has caused the faith of many to be shaken or even destroyed. Others have lost faith in human nature, feeling it to be fundamentally corrupt. Otherwise how could such things happen?
I know of a priest who looked around at the scandalous, sinful side of the Church and came to that same, unfortunate conclusion. Human nature must be created as fundamentally sinful and corrupt, and only God’s grace can do anything about it. If some or even many people seem to be fundamentally good, it is merely a cosmetic effect. This priest’s frustration and anger would so try the patience of Church leaders (many of them exceedingly corrupt) that he was formally thrown out of the Church. This happened in the sixteenth century, and the priest was Martin Luther. It was the scandalous, sinful side of the Church, as he experienced it, that helped convince him that humanity was really a dung heap covered with snow. We are fundamentally evil, with only the external appearance of goodness.
Fortunately along comes the Christmas season liturgies each year to remind us that this is not the way to view humanity, created, after all, in the image and likeness of God. Yes, we tarnish that image consistently. We know well enough about our torn and twisted side. We want to be good and generous and kind and courageous, but we end up being ugly, mean, stingy and cowardly. When we examine our consciences we discover ourselves to be suspicious of strangers, hostile to our neighbors, disloyal to friends, ungrateful to our parents, harsh to our spouse, unsympathetic to our children, and unable to keep the simplest of resolutions. We know that we do not behave like the worst people of human history, but we share the same human nature as they. We do, in fact, have strains and tendencies in our own personalities that can pull us in the direction of cruelty and the destruction of others. But we are nor irretrievably broken.
The Christmas mystery tells us that human nature is fundamentally good, although it is clearly capable of going astray. The incarnation and birth of Jesus are God’s stamp of approval on the human race. Once Jesus appears among us as one of us, then humanity takes on an entirely new dignity. The liturgical text says it all as we pray to the Father: “Your eternal Word has taken upon himself our human weakness, giving our mortal nature immortal value.” This is not anything that we have deserved or merited, but it is entirely a gift. And the good news is that, because of Jesus’ entering into human nature, and because of his death and resurrection, sinfulness and darkness and death will never win out. Life and light will be victorious. We have been saved in spite of ourselves and in spite of our human weakness, and it is indeed good news.