4th Sunday of Advent
Is 7:10-14; Rm 1:1-7; Mt 1:18-24
This time of year we are very mindful of the Incarnation. And our readings this morning speak to us of Emmanuel: “God-with-us”. Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, became man – he took on our human nature. But this concept of our human nature isn’t always constant or unanimous. Is our human nature basically good with a little bit of bad mixed in, or basically bad with a little bit of good mixed in? Some people take a more negative view, some a more positive. As Fr. Gerard mentioned in his chapter talk Thursday evening when he was speaking about butter, at the time of the Protestant Reformation some of the leaders had a very harsh view of human nature. It is attributed to Martin Luther that he compared human nature to a dung heap covered with a little snow. Whether he actually said that is disputed, but it’s not far off from what he and John Calvin and some of the others preached.
And it’s not hard to see how they might arrive at this conclusion when we look back over history or even just focus, in our own times, at some of the evils being perpetrated and showing up in the news. The horrors committed by ISIS are too painful to even think about. How many murders and rapes occur in Rochester and Chicago and other big cities each month? We’ve become aware in the past couple decades of just how prevalent child abuse is. Human trafficking is on the rise. Huge numbers of people globally live in poverty and even malnutrition because of the greed and indifference of others. We see within ourselves our own strong tendencies to anger and impatience and lust and selfishness. But the Catholic view has always been that there is way more good in people than bad. God created our human nature good, and sin is only an aberration.
It seems like the dark side of human nature gets more press, generally. I would like to tell three little stories that happened to me in my little department here at the Abbey that bring out the good side of human nature. A couple winters ago I was harvesting timber in the southeast corner of our property where we border the chemical plant. I fell a tree that was three feet in diameter and misjudged just how tall it was. Their chain-link fence seemed so far away, and there was a big gully in between. Well, this tree ended up being close to a hundred feet tall and the top of it smashed a portion of their fence. You can imagine how sick I felt inside. “There goes the profit we were making on this little woods.” I figured it would take hundreds of dollars or even over a thousand to hire a professional company to come out and repair it in the dead of winter in such rough terrain. I phoned Arkema and left a message, telling what I had done and giving my name and number. The next day I got a call from their manager at the time, Annis Banks. I explained the incident in more detail and told her how sorry I was and that we would pay for everything. She said she would have some of her maintenance guys check it out and then she would call me back. I was dreading having to tell the whole thing to the Abbot. A little while later she called and couldn’t have been more gracious. She said they would fix the whole thing themselves, and only asked that I clear all the branches out of the way. Now that was human nature acting at its best! You can imagine how I went from feeling lousy to being elated.
Story two. I’m pretty sure it was the same winter that I was cutting a little north of there, along the Genesee River. There had been a landslide involving the Greenway Trail and I was getting any marketable logs out of that portion of our property between the Greenway and the river. The Greenway was impassible for snowmobiles, but I had made a logging road that curved around and connected the two ends. The snowmobiles were starting to take my logging road and happy to have the corridor open again. Well, trusting perhaps too much in the goodness of human nature, I would leave my chainsaws and tools in the woods sometimes when I would return to the Abbey for prayers or meals. I would stash them behind things so they were out of sight. Occasionally, I would even leave them out overnight. One morning I returned after being in a rush to make it to Vespers the evening before. It was on our own property, not the Greenway’s. As I got to my place I started getting a real creepy feeling. There were footprints in the snow where I could see a snowmobile stopped. He had seen the orange plastic wedges I had used in the last tree I fell, and stopped to steal them. Once he got to the stump he could see my main chainsaw hiding behind a log. The space now was eerily empty. I called the sheriff’s office and they sent a deputy out. She took pictures and wrote up a report, but said the chances were pretty slim they would ever find it. I next called Doug Hill, the president of the Caledonia Trailblazers Snowmobile Club. I asked him to keep his ear to the ground in case they heard of anyone bragging about it. He said they were having a board meeting that night and he would spread the word. I had worked with them before in trying to open the Greenway back up, so they knew me. They felt horrible that someone had done that. They voted unanimously to buy me a new one just like it to replace it. When Doug called and told me, I was incredulous. He said he had gone over to Leake’s Fixit Shop in York and seen one on the shelf that size for $1,200. Does that just prove the goodness of human nature, or what?
And my third story. Last February the Abbey bought a log truck – you know, one of those big trucks with a boom and grapple for loading and unloading the logs. Well, only an older truck was within our price range, so it has involved a lot of fixing up. The loading arm has several hydraulic cylinders to enable it to perform its functions. As I started using it, a couple of those cylinders started leaking oil and needing repair. Man, those things can be really expensive! I took the first one to Cylinder Services in Rochester. They saved us several hundred dollars by finding a used shaft and stuff rather than rebuilding it with everything new. Then the biggest cylinder on the arm started leaking really badly in September. When I took that off and delivered it to them, the quote was $2,800 to fix it. Ouch! They said they would try to find used pieces to save us money again. A few months went by but they just weren’t having any luck finding used material the right size and quality. Then one of their secretaries came up with an idea. Why not do it as a tax write-off since the Abbey is a non-profit organization? When I got Scott’s call I could have floated through the roof — a first-class job and no major hit to the bottom line of my department. I put it on this past week and it works beautifully.
God made his creation good. That’s the message of the first chapter of Genesis. “God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good” (Gn 1:31). Our human nature was originally completely good. But God gave us humans free will. He didn’t want us to be robots. But with that decision to give us free will came the huge risk that we would make poor choices. And those poor choices would affect not only the choice-maker but other innocent bystanders – like the children of an alcoholic father. Chapter 3 of Genesis tries to put into story form how sin entered the world and how our human nature sort of got derailed. The angels had been given the power of choice before us, and some of them opted away from God. With the help of the fallen angels’ cunning, the first human beings made some unwise choices that compromised some of the privileges they formerly enjoyed. Our human nature was henceforth wounded, and it became harder to choose good and avoid evil. Original sin entered the world and our fallen human nature that we experience today. But sin would not have the last word. God could not stand by and let his beautiful creation be marred. He sent his only Son into the world to take on our precious human nature and redeem it. In the Incarnation he united our human nature with his own divine nature. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas. And by his death on the cross he freed us from our slavery to sin. We have so much to celebrate in our human nature – so much to be thankful for. We have been given so much more than the rest of creation. Let us show our gratitude in our actions.