Earlier this week – in the midst of the rush that I think we are all feeling as we quickly approach the 25th Day of December – I received a phone message at the Office from my Mom that my cousin –my Dad’s sister’s daughter, who lives in Florida with her husband and four beautiful children – was flying in, and would be arriving in the area later that day. Ordinarily, this news would have significantly brightened my day: my Mom being an only child, while growing up our family spent a significant amount of time with my Dad’s extended family – he, his sister (my aunt), my uncles, and their respective spouses and children (my cousins). This was particularly true at holidays, and news that my cousin – whom distance prevents us from seeing each other as often as we would wish –was in from Florida would ordinarily be cause for great rejoicing! I was confused though because as I stated earlier, my cousin is married and has four children aged from the early teens on down; why would she be coming into New York to spend the holidays without her family? It was only when I returned my Mother’s call that I then learned the sad truth that lay behind my cousin’s journey: she was flying up to attend a funeral – one which took place yesterday at Saint Rose of Lima Catholic Church in her hometown of Newtown, Connecticut, where members of that stricken community gathered to lay to rest the six year old daughter of a young man that my cousin had attended Immaculate High School with in Danbury with back in the early 1990s.
A week has passed since the tragic events that took place at the Sandy Hook Grammar School in Newtown – where 26 people – 20 of whom were beautiful, innocent children of the tender age of seven or under – lost their lives at the hands of deeply disturbed young man armed with several assault rifles and automatic weapons. I frankly still am having a difficult time wrapping my head around this event – particularly since it occurred in a place I am so familiar with, a place that my Aunt, and Uncle and cousins called home, a place that I associate with family and all the warm feelings that accompany that word. That it occurred in a part of our country which had already sustained an additional violent – although this time, natural – assault from an another phenomenon named “Sandy” – not even a fortnight before the celebration of Christmas – has left me in a distinctly un-holiday like mood. For me generally this time of year is almost always filled with anticipation, and wonder, warmth and joy; this year, I honestly feel something between sadness and numb…and I know from speaking with others this week that in this feeling, I am not alone.
I will not be putting up a tree in my apartment this year…first year that I’ve been on my own that I haven’t done so. When I go home tonight, I will however be putting up my crèche. It is a pretty simple one, one that I first bought when I moved here to the city. It’s pretty heavy – made of pewter I think – and although it is made of metal it is not at all shiny. It consists of a contemporary representation of the Holy Family – Saint Joseph standing watch over his family with his staff, a kneeling Mary cradling the infant Jesus in her arms, a tiny lamb at her side – all three gathered under an arch which is crowned with a star, and an angel a-flight. I will be putting up my crèche tonight to remind me that over 2,000 years ago – in a tiny village in a back-water part of Palestine far from the center of anything – that love entered the world and took flesh….that hope itself was born.
For we Christians of course, that event changed EVERYTHING: in the Incarnation the Infinite became finite in order to teach us how to live, and show us how to love. And yet despite this positive spiritual epochal change, for those living in THAT place, at THAT time – very little became demonstrably better. In fact – in the short term – it actually became considerably worse – especially for the families living in and around Bethlehem.
It’s funny, but often times our recollection of the Christmas story is a very sanitized version: one where the Holy Family is resting warm and comfortably enclosed in a seemingly clean stable, being given fabulous presents from well dressed kings. Gone from this retelling is the distraught young couple – she in hard labor, he panicked to find his wife a place to deliver – being turned away by harsh, uncaring faces, the filthy conditions that certainly a place animals were kept would have necessarily contained, and of course the danger – so grave that the young family has to literally flee to another nation to seek safety: a condition that today would see them meet the legal definition of refugees. We should not forget that one of the first major events to take place after Jesus’ birth, and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, is not a glorious one but instead a terrible one: infuriated that he had been tricked by the Magi – whom he had instructed to return to him with the location of the Christ child in Bethlehem – Herod ordered the slaughter of every young boy in Bethlehem under the age of two in a mad attempt to defeat his own mortality and remain King of Judea forever. In this episode, I believe we come to see that the change which took place that first Christmas day was not a magical one – it did not automatically remove real evil from the world… as Herod’s heinous actions clearly show. Instead, I believe it was a transformative one: in becoming flesh, the Hope that was Jesus would go on from that stable to grow into a man who would teach us how to live, and – by his life and death on the cross – show us how to love, thereby overcoming evil with the only power on Earth that is truly greater then itself.
So tonight I will go home among the hustle and bustle of shoppers returning home with their packages, families choosing their trees, revelers heading off to holiday parties, and take out my little crèche; I will set it up, and then I’ll thank God … ever grateful for that most incredible event which occurred in the humblest of circumstances over two millennia ago, when Love became flesh to break the back of evil through its incredible power – and Hope for the world was born.
A Blessed Christmas to you all!