The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined (Is 9:2).
A couple of days ago on a Catholic radio station I heard a phrase that kind of jarred me a bit. It was “good riddance to the year that was ending”. It kind of stung me a little bit. Of course, that line is pretty understandable; it’s been a difficult year. But that same day I got a letter from somebody who said, “Father, this year has been really hard, but it’s been so filled with blessings.” And I look back on my own year and on that of some people I journey with and there have been a lot of blessings; some freedom has come to peoples’ lives through these very challenges. Its like that bar on somebody’s back, that burden that Isaiah is talking about has been lifted through these very struggles that we are in the midst of.
Sometimes we don’t have a clear perspective on that. I thought back to an experience I had when I was stationed at our mission house in Ghana. I was visiting a surgical ward in a nearby hospital, where I met a couple who had been in a terrible car accident. They were both in traction. The husband had been in the hospital for six months. One thing after another had gone wrong for him. They had set his femur, and a few weeks later, it buckled again. The doctor had to operate again, but then he went on holiday for a month. The needed part had been back-ordered from England, but there was one delay after another. I was feeling so badly for this man and for his wife, who was almost in equally bad shape. They were so restrained, with many broken bones, that they could barely scratch their noses.
When, after all this time, they told him he would have to be there for yet another month, I could have screamed. I was so frustrated and discouraged for this man. But he looked at me — I think he actually felt a bit sorry for me — and said: “Father, the Lord’s been teaching me so much these five months, lying right here in this bed.” I said to myself, “This man is a Christian, but I’m not sure that I am.”
Looking through some of Catherine Doherty’s Advent and Christmas letters, I’ve been struck at how, in many of those letters, she just dives right into the pain in this world, into some current situation such as war or famine.
Myself, I tend to skip over these things, looking for something inspiring instead. Some part of me wants to run from the cross or to make a little tidy Advent and Christmas. But she grapples with the pain.
It’s as natural as swimming, because she sees Christ in the celebrations we have here, in our preparations and in the joy of our hearts, and she doesn’t see any “disconnect” with people around the world who are really struggling. She sees Christ in everything. I was [reminded of this] when Linda Owen, who is in charge of our gift shop, which supports missions all over the world, showed me a Christmas letter from a bishop in southern India. Bishop Joseph wrote about his suffering people who were experiencing floods, unemployment, etc. and he expressed his solidarity with what people here were suffering from Covid. Then he said something wonderful. He said he wanted to stay rooted in that vulnerability and brokenness. Wow! He invited his readers to seek meaning in their suffering in the light of our Christian faith and in the light of the Nativity we are going to celebrate.
This really spoke to me and helped me bring these things together as a lesson for my own heart. He ended with “Don’t let anyone steal your joy!” I came across a simple example of this, of seeing the struggle in today’s world in the light of the Nativity, of the Christian mystery. In one of our mission houses, a staff member wrote about the liturgical shutdown [because of Covid], the fallout in people’s hearts, and the resulting disunity. She ended with these beautiful lines: “For myself, contemplating the Holy Family on their way to Bethlehem, obeying a pagan emperor … is a source of confidence and peace. Humility and obedience are the way God chose to fulfill the Scriptures. The sentence that resonates in my heart is: You would have no power over me unless it had been given to you from above (Jn 19:11).”
Another missionary priest wrote, “The people I work with have this amazing capacity for joy, even in the midst of huge trials.” Even in the face of death, they find something to be grateful for. Those who dwell in the land of darkness… We have our own forms of darkness on this continent and in the Western world, where poverty carries a deeper shame. There is a lot of poverty right here in Canada. It’s a land of opiate addiction, a land of abandonment of faith by some, a land of intense loneliness. Maybe the deepest darkness in this world isn’t human suffering but the darkness of sin, the folly of saying “no” to the living God.…On them light has shined. On this holy night, they have seen a great light. The yoke of their burden, and the yoke of our burden, has lifted. The bar across their shoulders and across our shoulders is broken.
Tonight is the night when this holy Child plunged into the sea of our poverty, our need, our wars, our alienation. This is our land of deep darkness, and tonight we see the holy Child, our Lord, plunge right into our midst out of sheer compassion. These words, written some 600 years before Christ, bring a radiant messianic joy that pours forth as they are proclaimed. We are surrounded by glory on this night. The Child who is Light fills our hearts, inviting many other hearts out of darkness, filling them with hope. What kind of helpless, poor child can do this? Only the Child prophesied by Isaiah and proclaimed in the Gospel: For unto us a Child is born (Is 9). For to you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, Christ the Lord (Lk 2:11). Savior. Christ. Lord. The revelation of these three words is breaking forth tonight through a child in a cave, in an obscure village, in the midst of abject poverty. The world doesn’t even know! But light begins to flood the world.
Bishop Joseph would invite us to see everything through the revelation of Jesus Christ whose light begins to fill everything. I walked by one of our guests yesterday who was putting the final touches on the decorations, and light was beginning to fill the world. Someone writes a Christmas letter to an isolated friend, or visits someone who needs a visit, and the light of this Child begins to flood the world.
We throw ourselves into the liturgy class or sing the O-Antiphons, and his light pushes back the darkness. When we turn from our sins, our deepest poverty, Christ’s light enters the world. We pray for those who have no faith in this Child, this Savior, and his light begins to fill everything. We see our compassionate Lord exchange the wood of the crèche for the wood of the cross, and his light conquers the darkness. For each of us to kneel before the crèche and, in prayer, to single-heartedly offer him our whole life is for light to fill the world. So let us celebrate with joy, for today is born to us a savior, Christ the Lord.
(Excerpted and adapted from a Christmas midnight Mass homily, 2020)