What do Advent and Christmas Have to do with Medical Education, Anyway?

By Virginia McCarthy

As a Jesuit, Catholic medical school, we have had several preparations for Christmas that may not be as “front-and-center” in other institutions.  These traditions are deeply engrained in our culture and expected by our students.  With the flurry of academic activity in the final weeks of the semester, the true miracle of Christmas might lie in the simple fact that anyone shows up to spend time together at all.  In the busy-ness, we pause, but what exactly is it that we are trying to remember about ourselves, the community, the world?

We refer to the four weeks preceding Christmas as Advent, whose name originates from the Greek word for “coming,” or “aventus.” Advent anticipates the coming of Christ thematically over the course of these four weeks, as readings build upon four themes: hope, love, joy, and peace.  The first two weeks of Advent play to the long game, the anticipated second coming of Christ.  The second two weeks harken back to the birth of the infant Jesus.  God incarnate.  God in our midst.

If our theology of incarnation commemorates “God showing up,” we have much to celebrate.  A recent homily by the priest at our parish reminded us that God did not show up to make us more divine, but to celebrate the inherent goodness of humanity.  What does a genuine embrace of our humanity ask of us? How do we live into this reality in a way that impacts daily life, both ours and that of others?  All too often, we rush to the end of the human life of Jesus on earth—to the counter-cultural life he led and the suffering he endured, but what do we learn when we stay with the incarnation for a moment? And, further, how does that inform medical education?

In medicine, as with the incarnation, the intricacies of what it means to be human form the foundation of practice.  From anatomy and physiology, to nutrition, to mechanisms of human disease, to pharmacology— the human body is simultaneously navigable and a mystery.  After anatomy, students report with awe and wonder the complexities of the human body; they share their fascination that humans are formed in a womb and are able to breathe and walk, think and talk.  It’s nothing short of a miracle.  Yet, it is not the tangible human reality that inspires the deepest wonder and awe.  Instead it is the encounter with the narrative, lived experience, elements of our shared journey that give us pause, that give the fullness of life and depth of meaning to the human story.

The hallmark of an excellent physician is not proficient medical practice alone.  That is expected.  The best physicians are able to walk through life with their patients, if only for moments at a time. They want to know more about their story.  In holding the story of another, they value the person before them, as they are, and in the privilege of intimate encounter.  They value their humanity, the uniqueness of their story.  This comes more naturally for some than others, but this is a learned practice.

Because accompaniment is a learned practice, Christians each year start over, in a sense.  We begin again, with one more year of life experience under our belts, deciphering further the ways in which the fullness of our humanity is infused with the Divine.  And all that this reality calls us to do and to be in a particular way in the world.  The practice of accompanying another is modeled for us through God’s promise to accompany us through all that life brings our way.  It is this accompaniment which we remember each through recalling the birth of Jesus.  And how do we teach accompaniment in medicine?

Amidst the flurry of exams, holiday preparations and travel plans, we try as a community to pause.  We seek to reflect on our experiences of the past year and anticipate the one to come.  We look for those moments when we entered into the reality of another.  Perhaps we can recall a time when-we shared in the human journey of a patient who was away from home, seeking medical care—when we might have shared in some way that existed outside the realm of medicine. Indeed, it is in such moments that I have felt God’s presence in our community.  In these final days of Advent, in these days preceding Christmas, where do we encounter God?  And how do we invite others to do the same?

Virginia (“Ginny”) McCarthy, M.Div.
, is the Director of University Ministry at Loyola University Chicago Health Sciences Division. 


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