Exercising our religious imagination this Christmas

Pope Francis visits the Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square after a prayer service New Year's Eve, 2014, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. (CNS photo / Paul Haring)

The Nativity scene is what comes to mind for many of us when we think about Christmas.

There is the manger with Mary kneeling by the infant Jesus with Joseph by her side. Often there are shepherds and a few sheep as well as some angels hovering in the sky. When St. Francis of Assisi created this image in the 1200s, he did it to remind people that this holy day is about worshiping God rather than gift giving. But this visual image did far more than that. For the people of his time it spoke to the felt sense of what this mystery was about, and it became a permanent part of our religious imagination.

Certainly this purpose is still relevant today but I'm afraid for many this Nativity scene is what the Incarnation is all about. Such a depiction of Incarnation may be helpful to teach young children about this mystery; however, the power of this mystery is so much more.

The world needs us to witness to this profound mystery more than ever. Listen to the rhetoric of many of the politicians and those running for president. We are at war with radical Islam. We need to eradicate the cancer of IS/ISIL. Build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to keep migrants out. Stop the resettlement process of Syrian refugees. Issue identity cards for Muslim U.S. citizens. Maybe let Christian Syrians into our country. We've got to be tough. Bomb them. People should have guns to protect themselves.

Such beliefs are filling the airwaves. Their energy is destructive and feeds our fears. It preys on our "differences." It asserts that for us to be secure we need to keep others separate from us.

This toxic atmosphere belies our belief in the Incarnation, which reveals that we are all one. Our faith will fail us if we do not allow this mystery to penetrate our hearts in ways that call forth from us a more mature faith.

The Incarnation witnesses to the reality that God so loved the world that God became human. Human and Divine were one. Jesus' early followers had experienced in him qualities and a consciousness that reflected God to them.

This profound experience of the early Christian community became a major issue as the early church tried to formulate how this could be. How could God be both Divine and human? Early church councils debated this and finally resolved it employing the philosophical categories and cosmological understandings of the time. As Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, too often the radical challenges of the profound mystery of the Incarnation were dismissed in service to other political or ecclesiastical purposes. The church's articulation of this mystery continues to be the formulation articulated in a much earlier historical period.

Today we are learning so much about our world and our place in it through evolution, quantum physics and the breakthroughs in cosmology. I find myself wondering if there is an invitation in all of this to exercise and stretch our religious imagination as we contemplate the Incarnation.

Scientists teach us that the universe began 13.8 billion years ago in a great flaring forth of a dense singularity of energy. From that explosion evolved time, space and what is called the vacuum — a sea of potentiality from within which everything arises as fluctuations of its energy. It is full of life. Everything that exists was present at the first flaring forth. And it has been evolving ever since.

Jesuit Fr. Teilhard de Chardin saw evolution as a movement toward more complexity. He stated that the only real evolution is that of convergence, because it is positive and creative. For Teilhard evolution has a directionality toward greater complexity and wholeness. Many scholars today echo Julian Huxley's insight that the human person is evolution become conscious of itself.

We are also coming to understand that cooperation and not competition is essential to survival. At significant points in the evolutionary process it was the convergence or cooperation between or among elements which formed something new. Evolution is marked by increasing wholeness in nature. As we have come from the same source we are evolving into the fullness of the Omega point, or in Teilhard's words, Christogenesis.

Energy has a central role, as we are learning that the material universe is fundamentally energy. There are different forms of energy but all of life is charged with energy. Quantum physics tells us that a particle split in two can communicate over vast distances. Rupert Sheldrake posits the concept of a morphogenetic field that carries information from one generation to another making it easier for its replication in the newer person. As more and more of us begin to do something it becomes easier for others to learn it.

Such insights offer a new space within our religious imagination to play, to stretch, and to see if there are ways to complement the Nativity scene, the gift of St. Francis' imagination.

What if we imagine . . .

God as Divine source, Divine energy, the vacuum present throughout the evolutionary process. God manifesting God's self in the emergence of galaxies, earth, life and consciousness.

Then rather than feeling this story to be too cold, abstract and distant, we tell the incredible story of Jesus. Within this vast billions-year process of the universe becoming, Jesus witnesses to the unimaginable significance of a single life.

People who experienced Jesus knew him to be different than other teachers of his day. He preached a message of radical inclusivity. He welcomed the outcasts, the sinners. He spoke to women and included them as disciples. He healed the suffering and the sick. He gathered his friends as a community of equals. He told us to love one another as ourselves. He warned us that if we see a splinter in someone's eye to look for the beam in our own. He related to all with compassion and mercy. He taught that we are all one, like his Abba God and he were one. He promised that his Abba God would dwell within each of us. His energy went out of him inviting people to come and see and then to follow. He was seen as authentic and lived what he believed to the fullest even when it alienated the powers that be. His followers witnessed him willing to suffer and die rather than betray what he believed to be the living out of his Abba God's will.

What if Jesus accessed the fullness of divinity at a historical moment which was open to this emergence? In a flash of one life, God consciousness broke through to a new stage in the evolutionary process. What if Jesus holds the potentiality for everyone to access their God self?

What if we imagine the Incarnation as an invitation to celebrate the potentiality that is ours if we open ourselves to take a long loving look at the real? To try to see ourselves as more alike than different with all whom inhabit this planet. To imagine us moving together as a people's and Earth community to greater wholeness, to seeking the common good. To understand everyone and everything is sacred. To be open enough to see the beam in my own eye so as not to judge the splinter in the eye of the other.

What if we see ourselves as the followers of Jesus being part of a morphogenetic field? In the mystical body of Christ we have been evolving, learning throughout time how to be more like Jesus. What if the incarnation continues in you and me, in the evolutionary process? What if the process invites us to manifest God consciousness as Jesus showed us here and now so as to effect the evolutionary process toward wholeness?

Stretching our religious imagination can be fun, but it is also very challenging for it breaks open new ways of being and doing.

This Christmas you might want to play with reimagining this mystery. When you think about the shepherds looking at the sky, reflect for a moment on how the universe began. Gaze at the stars, the galaxies, and the immensity of it all. The shepherds knew something great was happening. What do you sense? Can you imagine God's presence in a radically new way? You may just find yourself breaking out into songs of praise like the angels or becoming awe struck. Think about the family we call holy. Imagine how important every individual is and how each of us needs the other to discover our true self. Imagine how they must have lived sensing the presence of God in their lives and being open to see it in new ways so as to make choices that furthered the evolutionary process toward fullness.

We contemplate that in Jesus Divinity and Humanity are one. For some it is incomprehensible that this could happen with a simple carpenter's son. For some it is even a scandal. Yet it is the profound gift of Incarnation-the realization that we are all children of God invited to share in the Divine Consciousness. Our planet is in need of us to accept that gift and live it.

This Christmas I am going to imagine giving that gift to everyone, sending forth the energy of our oneness. Perhaps you will join me. May you have a very merry reimagined Christmas!

[Nancy Sylvester, IHM, is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan as well as in the Presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that she was National Coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]

To read Nancy Sylvester's entire series, click on her author name above or click here to see a list of her columns.

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