We are living in perilous times when the hearts and souls of men are sorely tried. Never before has the future been so utterly unpredictable; we are not so much in a period of transition with belief in progress to push us on, rather we seem to be entering the realm of the unknown, joylessly, disillusioned, and without hope. The whole world seems to be in a state of spiritual widowhood, possessed of the harrowing devastation of one who set out on life’s course joyously in intimate comradeship with another, and then is bereft of that companion forever.
And in all this confusion and bewilderment our modern prophets say that our economics have failed us. No! It is not our economics which have failed; it is man who has failed – man who has forgotten God. Hence no manner of economic or political re-adjustment can possibly save our civilization; we can be saved only by a renovation of the inner man, only by a purging of our hearts and souls; for only by seeking first the Kingdom of God and His Justice will all these other things be added unto us. That is the way the world twenty centuries ago was saved from paganism and selfishness. And that is the way it will be saved again. In order to bring home this truth, recall briefly how Our Lord saved the world once before, and thus learn how it can be saved once again.
Have you ever adverted to the striking fact that the political, economic, and social conditions of the world at the time Our Lord was born into it were very much like they are today? Never before have two periods of history been so alike. For example, in those days there was an intense Nationalism in Israel, and a haughtly Militarism in Rome. With Caesar there arose a kind of dictatorship which absorbed individual rights. Economically, there was exploitation of labor and the Servile State. Taxation was excessive and overpowering; Religion was on the decline; the Gentiles lost faith in their gods, and Israel had no prophet since the days of the Machabees. Wealth was in the hands of the few; life was becoming more of a riddle, in which solitary hearts lost nerve, begot no songs and few children, became weary of old culture, afraid of new gods, of fate, of the stars above and the world beyond. As Virgil, who lived during those times, described it:
“Where wrong and right are blest,
A world that teems with war, a world that reeks
With countless crime, where ever-more the plough
Lacks its due honor, and the hind is forced
Far from the desolate fields, and reaping hooks
Are straightened into swords.”
Into this world with its depression, its despair, and its despondency, God came. And He came to set men and their world right with God – not only their hearts and their souls, but even their business, their secular affairs, their governments, and their all. How did He do it? God solved the social, political, and economic problems of the world not by enunciating a new economic system; nor by instructing man in the ways of supply and demand; nor by a great piece of research which revealed the many aspects of their problem; nor even by giving to the world a formula for finances, trade agreements, armaments, slavery, imperialism, or war. He saved it from its ills by being born as a babe in the insigni- ficant village of Bethlehem. That seemingly trivial incident which was so commonplace that the inn-keeper refused a room to His Blessed Mother was the revolution that upset the world and the solution which gave it peace. Driven even off the face of the earth He came to save, His Mother sought refuge in a shepherd’s cave, and there under the floor of the world was born Him who like Samson shook the pillars of the world to its very foundations, pulled down the already crumbling edifice, and built a new Living Temple in its place, where men might once more sing because they had found their God.
But you ask what has the birth of a God in the form of a babe to do with the social, political, and economic conditions of His day and our own? What possible relation could exist between a child in a manger of straw and Caesar on his throne of gold? The answer is: The birth of the Son of God in the flesh was the introduction into the historical world-order of a new life; it was a proclamation to the world that social reconstruction has something to do with spiritual regeneration; that nations can be saved only by the men in them being re-born to God as God is now being born to man. Once God entered the created order on the level of humanity and became part of the stream of history. He gave man a new strength from above; He gave Him a Divine Power along with human power. In a word, God became man in order that man might become God-like. That is why Christ was born a babe – to teach us that deliverance from economic and social ills can be obtained only by a birth.
Humanity was tired mentally and exhausted spiritually; for four thousand years it had been making the great experiment of Humanism, and was now like a sick man who could not cure himself. It was in a state like unto our own world, which since the days of the Renaissance, has tried to build its civilization on the self-sufficiency of man without God. Mankind left to itself slowly sinks downward and reverts to the type of Adam. The law of necessary progress is a myth. We have proof enough that people advanced in culture may degenerate into savages, as our boasted twentieth century civilization degenerated into the butchery of the World War; but no solitary example exists of a race of savages rising to the civilized state by their own development. Apart from an outside super- natural assistance society goes from bad to worse until deterioration is universal. Not evolution but devolution is the law of man without God, just as it is the law of the sunflower without the sun. With all of our boasted mechanical civilization a day might come when our modern towers of Babel would be as forgotten as the first, when Americans would cease to exist as a race as the Babylonians and Medes have ceased to exist, when Washington would be a con- tested locality like the capital of the Aztec civilization, and when the constitution of the United States would be the hopeless search of the world’s archaeologists. Distant as it may seem, it is something which has happened a hundred times before and which may very well happen again.
Humanity cannot lift itself by its own boot-straps; there is no such thing as spontaneous generation; life does not come from crystals; poetry does not come from donkeys; international peace does not come from wars; social justice does not come from selfishness. With all our knowledge of chemistry we cannot make a human life in our laboratories because we lack the unifying, vivifying principle of a soul which comes only from God. Life is not a push from below; it is a gift from above. It is not the result of the necessary ascent of man, but the loving descent of God. It is not the term of Progress; it is the fruit of the Incarnation. Hence; like that world into which Christ was born, the world today needs not a shuffling of old ideas, not a new economic, not a new monetary system – it needs a New Birth. It needs the intrusion into our order of a new life and a new spirit, which God alone can give. We cannot give ourselves this new Birth any more than we can be born again naturally. If we are to be born again into the newness of life the regenerating principle must come from above, and that is precisely the meaning of the Incarnation: The introduction into the world on the level of human nature of the Life of God, who came not to judge the world, but to save it. And this is why I say He solved our problems by appearing as a Babe, because the regeneration of society has something to do with Birth.
Immediately you say: This is but theory; the Incarnation of the Son of God took place 1900 years ago, and is just as past as the Battle of Waterloo. No! The Incarnation is not past. How can God belong to the past? The Incarnation is taking place right now. What God did to that individual human nature which He took from Mary His Mother is what He wills to do, in a lesser degree, to every human nature in the world; namely, to make us partakers of His Divine Life. He who from all eternity was born of the Eternal Father was born in time in Bethlehem. He wills that we who are born in time of our earthly fathers, should be reborn in Eternity of the Heavenly Father, made new creatures, become possessed of new life, and members of the Kingdom of God. Let me make this clear by an example: When a government wishes to issue a coin, it first of all makes the original die. This original model requires the work of a consummate artist. But once the die is cast, the model formed, millions and millions of coins may be struck from it, each bearing the resemblance of the original. Now, Bethlehem is the city where the die was struck and Christ Himself is the Die. All the men v/ho have lived and will ever live are the raw material awaiting the stamp of the Divine Original. But in order to be like Him, that is, a sharer of His Divine Life, we must be struck off that die. And the Baptismal font is the new Bethlehem where the copies are made, for there men are re-born again to the Life of God. O think not that Baptism means merely a sprinkling of water, as if you had no other eyes than those which are blinded by dust! Do you say money is only a mechanical product of a steel die, or do you say it has a value because backed by the power of government?
Why then should we not say that Baptism is externally a cleansing, but internally it is a regeneration, and a new life, because backed by the Divinity of Christ? The incarnation is the Model and the Pat- tern, the Baptismal Font is its prolongation and extension; for in both a birth takes place: the birth of God in the flesh and the birth of the flesh in God. Now do you understand why God solved the economic, political, and social problems of His time by a birth – because man could never be saved except by being regenerated?
And that is the only way we can ever solve our economic, political, and social problems; namely by being re-born to that divine life; by being incorporated to Him who gives us a power above our will, a wisdom above our reason, and a strength above our arms. That same Divine Life that came into the world-process 1900 years ago, must come back into it again. Unless we are born again – we shall perish. The barrier to our progress is our broken hearts and only Christ can give us a new heart. Our old hearts have hardened; our old minds are confused; our old habits overpower us. We need a fresh start, a new re-shaping, a new quickening spirit. And the more there are of us who are struck off the great Original Divine Die of Christ, the better the world will be. It is not economics which have failed us; it is man who has failed because he refuses to be signed with the sign of Christ. Economic reconstruction is therefore conditioned upon spiritual regeneration; our ills today are not political and economic, but moral and religious; we are not going to be saved by finances or armaments, any more than the chosen people of God were saved by horsemen because they were many, or horses because they were strong. The Gospel of Spiritual Regeneration which alone can save us will be presented under the Parable of the Prodigal Son, with which I shall begin next Sunday. It will not, I trust, be just a vague appeal to follow Christ; it will be an appeal to be re-born in Christ – to live spiritual lives, to be infused with Divine Life. The idea of re-birth is a happy one with which to begin the New Year. My wish to you is that you will have a Happy New Year – but by a new year I do not mean new in the sense of another; for if a new year were just another year it would not be so happy – there is no happiness in adding year to year and growing older. By a new year I mean new in the sense of regenerated, rejuvenated, new-born; for there is happiness in having life before you – especially the Eternal Life of God. Now you know how deep and heart-felt are my greetings when I say to you individually: I wish you a Happy New Year – God love you!