Friday, December 27, 2013

SOBERING CHRISTMAS

IT STARTED OUT WARM AND FUZZY



Our abbey church looked beautiful for “midnight” mass: poinsettias, evergreens, candles on the walls. The traditional organ music was punctuated by African drums and guitar, encouraging the congregation to sing out with gusto. It was a storybook sort of experience.  The next morning sung Lauds (morning prayer) was more subdued but joyful as well as we monks sang the praises of the newborn King amid flickering candles and glowing poinsettias.

I then drove to nearby St. Augustine’s church full of Christmas good cheer to celebrate the nine o’clock mass. I was fifteen minutes early, so I went and sat in a pew among the little children who had just arrived in two vans after being picked up by the Missionaries of Charity and brought to Church. I wished them a merry Christmas and then asked those nearest me, “Did you get anything for Christmas?” The kids, who are normally chatty and full of life, just looked away,wearing deadpan expressions. I asked one or two of my favorite nine-year olds individually. No response. Then it hit me: As unbelievable as it sounds to many of us in our affluent culture, these children had actually not received any presents for Christmas!   
 
Luis, a boy of five or six, was sitting at my right elbow in the crowded pew; I turned to him and whispered, “And what about you, Luis?” He put on disappointed, old-man expression as he looked up at me and said with a sad matter-of-factness “Mi padre es borracho” – “My father’s a drunk.” To him that explained everything. What do you say to a five-year old when he tells you that on Christmas morning?   

My warm storybook Christmas spirit had cooled in the face of the reality faced by these little children.

THE STRUGGLES OF CHRISTMAS

Yet even the Church does little to encourage the storybook happiness. The day after Christmas she has us celebrate the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr. Then on the 28th the feast of the Holy Innocents, those tiny victims of the psychopath Herod (matt 2:13-18).

Rembrandt, The Flight into Egypt 

The Sunday after Christmas is the Feast of the Holy Family, so that should be good for some warm fuzzy Christmas carols about the sweet newborn babe and his mild mother. Not so fast! Instead, what we get for the gospel reading is the story of the flight into Egypt (Matt 2:13-15, 19-23). Joseph takes his family and rushes with them into political exile; they become refugees, aliens in a land where they do not speak the language -- like some of the parishioners in St. Augustine’s. We have no biblical evidence of the Holy Family’s having established a fixed residence in Egypt – maybe they were homeless like some of the people that come to St. Augustine’s church.

So, the Church’s Christmas turns quickly into a rather somber affair, with martyrs, slaughtered babies and the Holy Family fleeing to a foreign land. But all of this serves to highlight the glorious truth, the news of great joy that the angel speaks to the shepherds: God has now become one of us, sharing in our every struggle and sorrow.

GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY

In one sense nothing has changed with the birth of the Babe, but in another sense everything has changed. Because the Word became flesh and came to dwell among us, all of creation has been lifted into sacredness, all of time is now sacred time, and all of our suffering and pain have been given a meaning, they have become the source of our redemption. Now that’s “good news of great joy which shall be to all the people!”

I hope that some day little Luis, who barely knows his borracho father, will none the less experience the fact that he is loved by God unconditionally, just as he is, and may be able to love his father just the way God does – just as he is.

I pray that the families who are exiled from their own land and their own language will identify with the Holy Family this Sunday and be strengthened by the example and the prayers of Jesus, Mary and Joseph to bear up under the hardships of their life as “outsiders.”


These Christmastide prayers of mine are not very warm and fuzzy, but at St. Augustine’s church they ring out with Truth and ultimate Joy.
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3 comments:

  1. Brother Thomas Aquinas Hall, O.S.B.January 1, 2014 at 2:23 PM

    I have noticed in my life that the biggest mystery of suffering is not so much as why it happens, but why it happens to certain people, like the children in this blog post, and other children, especially since they have not done anything for their suffering to happen. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was asking myself the inevitable, and quite dangerous, question of "Why me?" Shortly after my diagnosis, I ended up being treated in a place with patients even younger than me, and I was only 15. I went from asking "Why me?" to "Why them?" It is quite a mystery, and even more mysterious is not only the answer to this question, but the means of getting one that requires personal effort.

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  2. Father Albert, I enjoy your Advent book each year and eagerly look forward to obtaining your walk through Lent. I am an educator and was particularly touched by your story. It is a call to action for us to live out the Gospel to a hurting world. Hopefully this little boy, and others like him, will experience the love of God in school, through the church, and elsewhere so that this pattern can be broken.

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  3. Some cultures give poinsettias to Church as gifts for Christmas, drink heavily to celebrate Christmas Eve and exchange gifts on Epiphany. I know that is hard to accept this in our culture and may cause some unwarranted indignation.

    Jesus is the greatest Gift. Parents are honored just because they are parents, period, no matter what their state in life is. They are someone's child, too.

    St. Nick doesn't deliver gifts the same way to everyone. I am suprised he didn't leave any pencils at the church for the children.

    Adults really need to set their own embarrassment aside and remember that children love their parents, even if they don't like some behaviors. A child might become Jesus to a parent and really help them in life.

    In the 60s I remember that St. Nick only delivered gifts to young children up until 6 or 7 years old. Once they reached eight, or said they don't believe in him, he didn't deliver any.

    CMJE

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