The most typical symbol of Christmas is a light shining in the darkness. The shepherds in the fields and the wise men in the east suddenly see the night made bright. It is a season for candles and stars, and its theological sense is caught in one of the readings from the liturgy for Christmas night: "The grace of God has appeared, offering salvation to all men" (Titus, 2:11).
Some years the darkness seems more bleak and barren than others. A strong case could be made for 1980 on the all time disaster list. A sudden earthquake in southern Italy snatched away tens of thousands of lives and left many more homeless and hungry. And if the natural catastrophe were not dispiriting enough, tales of profiteering and exploiting the homeless cast a shadow on other reports of heroism and generosity. The Middle East is once again torn by violence even as Christians prepare to remember the birth there of the Prince of Peace.
Every year Christmas brings, of course, at least a momentary interruption to the dreary recital of things gone wrong. The universe seems to smile: "All the flowers looked up at Him, and all the stars looked down." For those of us here in New York, the lighting of the giant Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center is always a pleasant enough introduction to holiday distractions. This year some teen-age figure skaters performed several nifty routines to the rhythms of traditional Christmas carols, and it was refreshing to hear the huge crowd sing Joy to the World rather than that non-denominational favorite, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Yet that same night, only hours later and a handful of city streets away, John Lennon, the first of the Beatles, was shot down in a senseless murder. The night ended with a different kind of crowd singing a different kind of song-the music that defined a generation-outside the hospital where its composer, John Lennon, lay dead, for no apparent reason at all.
Overwhelming natural disasters, intractable political conflicts, capricious and wasteful violence have not made 1980 a vintage year. And the year ahead looms rather threateningly, too. Discussing recent history and future prospects the other day, an elderly gentleman with a strong eschatological bent casually predicted: "If you liked 1968, youll love 1981."
Christmas tree candles and stars by themselves do not throw much light on such unrelieved darkness. And yet we do believe what we say on Christmas night: "The grace of God has appeared, offering salvation to all men." We need to be reminded of this, not just at Christmas but in the workaday season as well. Which is why, I take it, that Pope John Paul II chose to devote his second encyclical to the theme of Gods merciful love (Dives in Misericordia-rich in mercy-published on the first Sunday of Advent.)
Like his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, and so many of his other statements, Dives in Misericordia is preoccupied with the twin themes of the dignity of the human person and the meaning and mission of Jesus Christ. As always, John Paul II insists that the full meaning of the human person can never be grasped in isolation from God. A totally desacralized world, he warns, will inevitably become a dehumanized world. The principal message of the encyclical is a theme of the Christmas liturgy. In Jesus Christ the mercy of God has been revealed incarnate.
A God of mercy, John Paul recognizes at the start of his message, is not a fashionable idea in the contemporary world. Our technological advances have encouraged us to think of the world in terms of dominance rather than forgiveness. But this is a superficial reaction, even if it is favored by someone as knowledgeable as Carl Sagan. Most thoughtful people are struck by the dangers as well as by the promise that science and technology hold out for the human family.
The world would grow intolerable if forgiveness were not available, if there were no one to bestow it. In his book, Whatever Happened to Sin?, Karl Menninger tells the story of the man who stood on a street corner in Chicago and shouted at each person as he or she passed by: "Guilty, guilty!" The man who told Dr. Menninger about the incident admitted that when he passed by and was called "guilty," he thought to himself, "Yes, but how did he know." The story suggests to me another urban experience. In the film, A Thousand Clowns, its off-beat hero, played by Jason Robards walks through the streets of New York saying to everyone he passes, "Im sorry. Im sorry." And most people, he finds, answer "Thats all right."
I dont think the two stories necessarily illustrate the special genius of each of the two cities in question. They do, perhaps, suggest how much the need to forgive and be forgiven is woven into our permanent condition as pilgrims on this darkened planet, where the light can sometimes seem only intermittent and the pilgrims can often feel forgotten.
In tracing the biblical theme of Gods mercy John Paul recalls that it is an expression of Gods fidelity to Himself; He will not desert those with whom He has been joined in covenant. In the New Testament, in the analogy of the Prodigal Son, this covenant is expressed in vivid personal terms. By leaving his father and wandering in a strange land, the son becomes a stranger to himself as well. Can this ancient parable stand as the dramatization of the inner landscape of many contemporary pilgrims who are not at home in this threatening, lonely universe, and are alienated from themselves as well?
Mercy is resented by those who confuse it with pity. To become an object of pity is to be stripped of dignity and worth, but the mercy of God does not degrade but transforms. This is because it leads us from the gracious appearance at Bethlehem to the mystery of the Cross on Calvary. Conventional secular wisdom finds this unappealing, even contradictory, but so it has always been. The Cross remains the definitive sign of the covenant broken and then restored, of a God ever-faithful to His people, of pilgrims who wandered and have regained their way, of the ashes of death from which now springs forth new fire. No one knew this better than Mary, the Mother of Mercy, John Paul II points out, for no one shared more fully than she in the mystery of the Cross.
If a harsh world seems more gentle at least for a moment at Christmas, it is not simply because of the candles and the stars. It is because on this night a light appeared, the revelation of the mercy of God incarnate which lasts "from generation to generation" even one as embattled as we find ourselves in December 1980, the year of Our Lord.