The most commonplace symbol of our Christmas celebration is a light shining in the darkness: a candle in the window, a star on top of a tree. The symbol is so familiar that we can sometimes fail to appreciate its distinctive message. Many lights shine in the darkness. Some of them can be brutal and threateningheadlights rushing at you on a dark narrow road, for example, or the harsh glare of an interrogation room. But the Christmas light beckons rather than intimidates. Here, the Christmas star or candle seems to say, is where the winding ways of the heart come home.
Without the darkness we would not see the Christmas light. Each Christmas, of course, we are surrounded by different kinds of darkness, both personal and global, loves that have been betrayed, resentments that resist forgiveness and a world haunted by the random threats of terrorists. The Christmas light may seem to some a momentary distraction from the enduring darkness of their personal lives. For the secularist, who sees religious passion as a destructive force, the Christmas light may seem more dangerous, a sentimental distraction from the inevitable violence that arises from conflicting claims to absolute truth.
Religious passion can be a dangerous flame. Saints and mystics have been transformed by its radiance, but it has also been perverted into forms that are cruel and destructive. Enforcing religious faith by the use of force and violence is always a corruption of religious passion, whether in the courts of the Catholic Inquisition or in the jihad of Islamic fundamentalists. How can we judge when the flame of religious passion is pure and true, offering healing and hope, and when it is dark and destructive, a demonic perversion rather than a divine invitation? Does the story of Bethlehem, that first appearance of the Christmas light in darkness, represent authentic religious passion?
At first glance, it may seem odd to speak of Bethlehem in terms of passion. The story, so often trivialized by sentimentality, suggests a more gentle rhythm. Yet in the simple narrative of Luke’s Gospel, a revolutionary truth is announced: In the son of Mary, Jesus of Nazareth, God has entered human history, a claim so radical that the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called faith in the Incarnation a commitment to the absurd. The full meaning of the Christmas claim will unfold only in the complete story of the human race and its history of salvation. Yet this inexhaustible mystery of the Incarnation does imply a working test of religious experience, a way to discriminate between the passion of the truth and the frenzy of the demonic.
The passion of Bethlehem is a passion for the prosaic, an affirmation that the ordinary is sacred, that the human condition, worn with routine, is constantly renewed from within by the heartbeat of God. To the eyes of faith, the particulars are full of promise: stars and straw and shepherds and the love of simple men and women. By contrast, any religious claim that implies contempt for human life can only be a blasphemous perversion of religious faith. Acts of violence that destroy the innocent are a mockery of the Lord of life, in whose image men and women have been created. The suicide bomber is no martyr to a divine cause but rather the prisoner and victim of darkness.
In their landmark document on the relationship of the church to non-Christian religions (Nostra Aetate), the fathers of the Second Vatican Council declared that religious traditions, despite their different truth claims, testify nonetheless to the search for God that is part of the human condition. Where the secularist sees in religious differences the roots of violent conflict, men and women of faith recognize the deepest aspirations of their common humanity. In the weeks before this Christmas of 2006, the world glimpsed a vivid image of this human unity that spans doctrinal differences when Pope Benedict XVI, during his historic visit to Turkey, prayed with Bartholomew, the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, while attending an Orthodox Divine Liturgy, and on the last day of his visit in the historic Blue Mosque, stood in prayerful silence facing Mecca with his Muslim host.
For men and women of faith the light of Christmas recalls in our personal lives and in the history of the human family the presence of a loving God, faithful to his promises to his people, even when the twists and turns of our individual stories and the human story have been darkened by doubt and death. It is a light that invites us to move forward in hope toward a future we cannot predict or control but one where the God who has entered our history and shared our condition walks with us still.