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Br. Seán Sammon

25/12/2007: General House

In but a few days time we shall mark the beginning of the 8th year of the third millennium. Almost a decade ago, we celebrated the onset of this 1000 year stretch of history with great fanfare and considerable hope. Looking back on all that has transpired in these its first few years, however, could cause us to ask: Is humanity any better off today than in January 2000?
Sad to say, the evidence on hand is insufficient to allow anyone to respond with a resounding “yes.” For wars continue to rage in so many places on this planet and genocides are carried out in the light of day and seemingly without challenge. In nation after nation those with means amass more wealth while those with little are told to learn to do with less. Most scandalous of all is the growing animosity among people of different faiths, the increasingly violent business of human trafficking, the exploitation of children.
How make sense of this feast of Christmas in a world seemingly beset by so many ills? Does our celebration of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God make any real difference or it is merely meant to be but a pleasant distraction from the real work of living, a time for brief cease fires, superficial good wishes, business as usual?
Two points; the first: the coming of the Son of Man into history deserves a better response than shallow sentimentality. After the crucifixion, the birth of Jesus as recounted by the author of Luke is the most widely recognized image in Christianity. Its details have been recounted time and again. Miriam of Nazareth gives birth to her first born in a stable in Bethlehem and lays him in a manger while angels sing a canticle announcing that this child is the long awaited Savior, Christ the Lord. Shepherds visit and full of wonder leave praising God.
In telling the story of Jesus’ birth, however, Luke also manages to render it bloodless, reducing the experience of childbirth to these few words, “and she gave birth.” The fact of the matter is that passion marks any birth, so also does suffering, joy is there besides. Mary had been knitting this child of hers together in her womb for nine long months. As the time came to deliver him, she could not help but realize that death in childbirth, a common reality in ancient Israel, was a possibility. Real blood was shed in the delivery of Jesus Christ by a poor peasant woman far from home and laboring in childbirth for the first time.
Second point: the tale of the birth of Jesus reminds us that it is God who takes the initiative in any relationship. It is he who surprises us with his presence. This was also the case with the birth of Jesus. From the beginning of time God had been trying to get our attention. Sending his Son into our world was the most stunning example of that fact. And how did we receive him? In the same way that we continue to receive God into our lives today. With indifference, with an unwillingness on our part to change, with a reluctance to struggle to know his will and his ways. Yes, since the creation of the world, God has reached out to us time and again. We, though, frequently preoccupied elsewhere have often been too busy to take notice.
There is a charming story about Saint Augustine’s struggle to make sense of the mystery of the Trinity. One day, exhausted from long hours of study, he decided to take a walk along a beach and to try to clear his head. Along the way, Augustine came across a small boy who was patiently pouring water into a hole in the sand. He cupped seawater in his hands and emptied it into the hole.
The saint watched the boy repeat this pattern time and again. Eventually he asked the child what he was doing. “I’m trying to fill this hole with the ocean,” was the boy’s response. “But that is impossible,” said Augustine, “you will never fit the ocean into that little hole.” “Nor will you be able to fit the mystery of the Trinity into your mind,” was the child’s reply. Augustine concluded that he had been speaking with an angel.
Whether the small boy was an angel or not is open to discussion. In spite of that this pious legend has a message for us today. Marcellin Champagnat often said that to become a brother is to undertake to become a saint. That invitation is extended in this age to our Marist lay partners also. If we are ever to become saints, however, we will have to begin paying attention to God in all the ways he is present to us. As the little boy reminded the great saint: God’s ways are not ours. Augustine’s struggle with the mystery of the Trinity reminds us of that fact, so also does the celebration of the feast of Christmas in a world as troubled as our own is today.
So, if we pray for one gift this Christmas, let us pray for a change of heart. For any relationship with God is more an affair of the heart than of the head. Yes, let us pray for hearts open enough so that we can, like Mary, take the Lord at his word and not demand that all of our questions be answered at that outset. And let us pray too that our hearts be as fruitful as hers and eventually as passionate, on fire, full of love for the Lord Jesus and his Good News. In that way future Christmases in this third millennium might just be celebrated in a world more in keeping with what God had in mind in the first place. Happy Christmas.

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