Remembering a Darker Christmas Story: 'In the groanings of the night, our challenge is to follow the light.'

Did you know that when I hug you, Mama, its not just me whos hugging you? God is hugging you too. In a sentence, our four-year-old theologian summed up the mystery of the Incarnation. The context for her declaration was not a Hallmark moment, nor were the circumstances like those of the birth of Christ. She had been up sick all night. Like any parent, helpless to stop the waves of nausea wracking my small daughters frame, all I could do was be with her, holding her hair back until the retching stopped, holding her hand, cleaning her and the bathroom up, tucking her back into bed and standing watch until the next round took hold. I was impotent to stop the course of the virus. But to her, my just being there with her in the darkness was cause for hugs of thanks.

Once again my children remind me of the core tenets of our faith. To me the brilliance of Ignatian spirituality is the simple directive to find God in all things. In all things is the rub. We are not tasked with seeing Gods presence only in Hallmark moments, beautiful sunsets and Christmas choruses singing in harmony. St. Ignatius challenged his contemporaries and challenges us today to find God in the barrios of the poor, the beds of the sick, the awkward complications of those who need more than we can givein precisely those bleak corners of life that at first glance seem most bereft of God.

Despair is easy; hope is hard. Especially at this cold and dark time of year, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the depth and darkness of human suffering, by the weight of wave after wave of bad news crashing onto the shores of our consciousness. The war in Iraq continues its voracious pace, killing innocents, displacing millions, but the culture urges us to forget that for now, to be merry and bright and deck the halls. As leaders in the Middle East meet, polls show the sides are further apart than ever before. Two-thirds of Palestinians believe the right of refugees to return to their homes is non-negotiable, while 80 percent of Israelis believe that Palestinian refugees should not be allowed back. Bethlehem is a poster child for division, barricaded behind a 27-foot high wall, Israels version of last centurys Berlin Wall.


Jesus birthplace is a prison, says Mike Canawati, a Palestinian Christian resident of Bethlehem who is not allowed outside the wall. Christian peacemaker teams note that Mary and Joseph would not be able to enter Bethlehem today, and many Palestinian mothers in labor give birth in cars or fields because they are prevented by the wall and checkpoints from reaching medical care in time. They urge us to build walls around our nativity sets to show solidarity with Palestinians in Bethlehem suffering from apartheid.

How can we sing of peace on earth?

It does not help that our culture has sanitized and Disneyfied the Christmas story, putting it further out of reach. The characters in my childrens Fisher-Price manger set are all fresh, clean and smiling. The star automatically lights the scene while a carol plays on an endless loop, all light and no shadow. The culture tells me that I should feel nothing but joy at this most wonderful time of the year, and also that I should buy lots of stuff to shower others with consumer products, while the homeless tap on my car windows on my way home from the university in Washington, D.C. As a Christian, I feel conflicted. I would like to feel enraptured by the celebration of Christs birth. But how can I while Christians in the Middle East are still persecuted and forced to flee, while the poor still roam with no room at the inn?

Despite the greeting card renditions, Christs birth is a rather dark story. Reclaiming the darkness of that story can help its light shine on us today. A family is forced to leave home by the decree of a repressive regime. No one opens the door to the poor migrants. Ultimately Mary is forced to give birth amid the smell and dung of animals. Yes, shepherds and wise men pay their respects, but so do the thugs of a power-hungry dictator, who slaughter innocent babies. No cape-clad superhero saves the babies, rights the wrongs, smites the murderers, topples the repressive regime. Instead the members of the Holy Family become refugees, forced to flee because their religious identity and very existence challenge the unjust political order.

What is there to celebrate in this darkness? Emmanuel means God is with us, not that heaven appears on earth and peace and justice emerge instantly in our time. Instead, the promise of the Incarnation and the insight of Ignatius are that God is with us through it all, in illness, poverty, homelessness, repression, war, in the middle of the night in the most lowly circumstances. God is in all things. His shining light is not extinguished by Herods dark deeds then or ours today. In a world of seemingly unending darkness, the miracle and wisdom of the Magi were that they noticed and followed the light at all. The heroism of the shepherds was that they recognized God among them, in the most inauspicious circumstances. In the bleating of our daily labors, in the groanings of the night, our challenge is similar: to follow the light no matter how deep the darkness, to recognize the Incarnation and to hear the cry of the tiny divine child.

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10 years ago
Wow! If only I heard this kind of reflection and challenge from the altar! Thank you for sharing this message.


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