Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Naming God: Atlas or Advent?

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

To read this column in Spanish, click here.

Some years ago, when I was the pastor of a large city parish, I was having dinner with some parishioners. At one point, one of the family members said that when it comes down to it, all religions are the same. “They all share the same purpose and goal: to help people come to God,” he said. “Yes,” I responded, “there may be some truth to that, but Christianity actually turns that around, because at the core of our belief is not so much that we come to God, but that God comes to us.”

And so, it is no wonder that Christians begin the new year of our worship cycle with a season called Advent, celebrating the coming of God. In fact, the oldest title for Jesus in the church’s liturgy is “The Coming One” or “He Who Is to Come.” Jesus reveals God as the one who takes the initiative, who breaks through the barrier between time and eternity, the divine and created world. This is the linchpin that holds together the entire Christian faith.

We need Advent to remind us why we do what we do as Christians. The Eucharist is not a celebration of what we do for God, but what God is doing for us, coming again into our lives as the people of God, nourishing us to take up the journey of discipleship together with fresh energy and commitment.

Our outreach to those in need is prompted not by sympathy or guilt, but by the desire to meet the God who has decided to be fully present to human life with all of its limitations. We are moved to be close to those who suffer by a desire to testify to Emmanuel, God-with-us. And we carry on in the face of daunting challenges, setbacks and hardships, not out of stubborn resolve to avoid defeat, but the resolve that nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death itself.

Advent reminds us who we are and why we do what we do. It upends the myth that we are on our own when it comes to being safe and saved, that everything depends on us.

I am reminded this time of the year of a how this contrasting view of life is on full display in Midtown Manhattan. Towering over the plaza at Rockefeller Center is the 45-foot, six-and-a half-ton bronze statue of Atlas. He carries the world on his shoulders under great strain. While his legs buckle, he manages to hold the globe aloft, thus celebrating the indomitable spirit of human industry and mastery — as the savior of humanity.

Yet, just across the street in St. Patrick’s Cathedral is another statue featuring another who is holding and saving the world. It is the Christ child, cradled in his mother’s arms. He effortlessly and serenely clasps the world’s sphere in his tiny hand.

The contrast between these two competing views of human life and salvation could not be starker. The question is, what inspires us and what shapes our lives? Is it the image of humanity saving itself by organizing life around the pursuit of human productivity and material success? Or do we stand in wonder and awe, ever watchful and attentive to how, time and again, God comes to save us all, a God, as the spiritual reminds us, who has the whole world in his hands? 

Which one of these two scenes inspires us, gives us hope, and which one do we believe in? Or to put it another way, what name do we give to God — Atlas or Advent?


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