December 25, 2014
Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7
“There was no place for them at the inn . . .”
As a teenager I had a stubborn justice streak, a wild desire to do the unconventional in the name of Jesus, something that made my Sunday-observing Catholic parents very nervous, especially at Christmas time. Add to that I was my parents’ firstborn child, on Christmas Day, and after four younger brothers were born I remained the only daughter. All this created a lot of pressure not to rock boats on Christmas Day because, besides Jesus’ birthday, it was my special day and by extension my parents’ special day as my arrival had ushered them into parenthood.
But my zeal for Jesus got the best of me, and one year I announced I would not be home for Christmas (my birthday), but would volunteer at the nearby nursing home to be with those who had no family. I was in for an odd experience: delightful surprise at one of my best Christmases ever combined with sour comments about “being rebellious” and spoiling the family fun.
This memory came back last year as, once again, my zeal for Jesus got the best of me. Together with husband and daughter I spent Christmas Day volunteering at the local community Christmas dinner with all who had no one to celebrate with. This time there were no sour comments or resentful looks as we all agreed it was the best way to honour Christ’s birth. I’m hooked now; the family gathering will have to take place on another day close to Christmas.
Pope Francis takes every possible opportunity to point out the obvious: followers of Christ are to look, sound and behave counter-culturally, especially in what has become the peak buying and consuming season of the year. Jesus, born in a stable, came into the world to fight and defeat the demons of greed and selfishness, prejudice and hardness of heart. From the manger to the cross, Jesus fought these death-dealing trends in the human heart, thus opening the gates of heaven through radical compassion and mercy, love and self-giving for the “least of these.”
As Christians we have contributed massively to losing the connection with this original meaning of the season. Unthinkingly, we have eagerly joined the consumer culture by focusing on the buying and wrapping, baking and decorating. We deny Jesus, much like Peter did the night of his Master’s arrest, when, to the “big” question — Are you ready for Christmas yet? — we chime in one accord, preferably in a hectic tone of voice: “No I’m not, too many gifts to buy and wrap, cards to write and send, goodies to bake and decorations to hang up. I’m not ready!”
But what if instead we reply: “Ready for Christmas, absolutely I am! Advent prayers with lit candles on the wreath to keep me anchored in the essentials without getting washed away by waves of excessive consumerism, alternative gift-giving for good causes at the top of the list, and strangers welcome in our house this festive season.”
Where did we get the idea that Christmas is all about turkey and stuffing, gifts and exclusive culinary binges? The very feast that celebrates a perfect God entering our imperfect world while “there was no room for him at the inn” ought to give prime place to needy and vulnerable sisters and brothers. Is there no room for them in our lives? You know, the kind we meet on street corners, or hurry past while crossing the intersection, or the ones who can’t pay the bills and feed their children, or those quietly shunned in our own families.
Engaging in non-commercial activities at this time of year, intensifying our spiritual practices, inviting the lost and lonely at our festive tables is not only counter-cultural, it is also good for our mental, emotional and spiritual health. If we are truly possessed by a “zeal for Jesus” we have no choice. No tinsel or silver bells will make this message any easier to digest. Anything less smacks of hypocrisy and betrayal of our God who came to seek the lost and gather up the broken ones.
Growing radical solidarity of heart is growing the heart of God, that heart of God which landed vulnerable, weak and dependent in a Bethlehem stable. In Jesus, God declared radical solidarity with all those displaced, grieving and oppressed. Of a teenage mother he was an outcast from birth, a refugee in infancy, an innocent victim of human cruelty in adulthood. That is our God, embracing all the scrawny and needy ones in alleys and slums, on battlefields and flood plains, in loveless corporate boards rooms and dull suburbs.
Hang on to love, Jesus says, even when all is dark and cold. Hang on to love against all odds, Jesus says, even if it feels utterly foolish and the world mocks you. In boldness and courage stare down evil with love, says Jesus from the cradle to the cross, and then watch life explode into a beauty, freshness and newness never dreamt of: that is resurrection.
This is why the birth of Jesus altered the course of history. It is the most radical and most beautiful gift the world has ever received. Radical love pierced through stubborn layers of darkness, making the universe shift — a safe place at last, no matter what life brings.
Are we ready for Christmas? Only if we are ready to throw our lot in with the needy in our midst, and witness to that solidarity in the small and big choices in marking this festive season, can we say a heartfelt “yes.” A child is born to us today — God with us; alleluia.
Ternier-Gommers, wife, mother and grandmother, is a retreat leader and spiritual director, freelance writer and author of two books. She has worked in diocesan and parish ministry, in ecumenical dialogues and ministry, and co-ordinates an ecumenical network of women in ministry. Visit her website at www.prairie-encounters.ca