“How Great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are!” 1 John 3:1
Inspired by a recent article by Bishop Mariann Budde, I purchased and have begun reading Greg Boyle’s latest book, entitled Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship. Boyle – a Jesuit priest and founder of the Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, one of the largest gang-member rehabilitation programs in the world – has been a conduit for the love and redemption of God to many for whom the mere concept of a second chance is regarded as impossible. Among the powerful things that Boyle says in his book, I found the following quite amazing: “I’ve learned from giving thousands of talks that you never appeal to the conscience of your audience but, rather, introduce them to their own goodness.”
When I read these words for the first time, I felt a deep and resounding “YES!” well up from within me. What Boyle has articulated here is a profound truth about humanity: identity (i.e. what we believe to be true about ourselves) is a stronger motivator for action than obligation (i.e. what we think we ought to do). One has to do with alignment, while the other has to do with conformity; one is a grounding expression of authenticity, while the other can often draw us outside of ourselves, causing feelings of guilt if not adhered to. In this way, identity is inherently a much stronger motivator for action than conscience. Why? Because identity is core to who we are.
As we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Messiah, I can’t help but think that the Divine intention for all of us is that we would experience the Christmas story, not as an influencer of conscience per se, but rather as an identity-shaping story. It would be much less disruptive to our lives to simply adopt the moral teachings of Jesus as a matter of conscience (i.e. “this is what we ought to do”) than it would be to recognize somehow that the Incarnation is telling us something about who we are. Fundamentally, the fact that God would take on human flesh and become one of us – experiencing the unavoidable struggles of the human condition – is the greatest testimony to the fact that there is indeed something rather special about you and me that would compel God to do something so inconceivable. Indeed, the entire story of the life of Jesus on this earth, from birth to Ascension, bears witness to a fundamental truth about who we are: that you and I are beloved children of God, and as such, we were made for goodness. This Sunday-School-truth is an introduction to our true identity.
This Christmas, I invite you to experience the story of the birth of Christ as an identity-shaping story. Let it sink in. You are loved, and you were made for goodness. Then let your actions be a remarkable, beautiful, authentic expression of this truth.
Grace and peace to you and your loved ones this Christmas season, and may the light of Christ shine on us all.