Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel. ~ Isaiah 7:14
I walked into City Market Cortez to the sound of a bell ringing. A woman with a Santa hat on standing next to the red Salvation Army bucket said, “Merry Christmas.” Usually, they offer a smile and don’t say anything. “Merry Christmas,” I replied in a mutual blessing.
Christmas comes with tremendous expectations and promises. Is it always Merry? Do we have a Happy New Year? When the family gets together is there peace at the dinner table? Do the lion and the lamb lie down together? The angels sing we bring you “good news of great joy for all the people” (see Luke 2:10). How much joy is there for all people?
Father Ron Rolheiser asks, “What is the promise of Christmas?” He answers, “The Jewish prophets, especially Isaiah, promise that the birth of the messiah will turn reality delightfully upside down. There will be universal peace, reconciliation, enemies forgiving one another, justice, food for all, every sheep carefully tended to, everyone cradled peacefully in loving arms, and healing from all wounds. God will dry every tear on earth.”
This is a wonderful wish list but far from reality. War, terrorism, and civil unrest are everywhere. Neighbors do not talk with one another. Our family always has a great time at Christmas but there is usually at least one major blow up. Rolheiser adds, “Everywhere there are people who are hungry, oppressed, living in fear, and daily there are more people murdered and raped than our newspapers have space and time to report. Christmas can seem more like a promise than a reality.”
What promises of Christmas can we hang our hats on?
One summer we took our youth group on a service trip to Tsaile, Arizona, in the heart of the Navajo Nation. I was working with six teenage boys (two from a juvenile detention center in southern Arizona) digging post holes for a handicap ramp for an elderly Navajo woman who lived in a sagging single-wide trailer.
The sun beat down on us unmercifully and there was no shade anywhere in the high desert. We tried unsuccessfully to dig the holes on our own. The ground was unforgiving and hard as concrete. The kids put their heads together and said, “Why don’t we dig one hole at a time together? One person can take ten swings at the hole (with the sharp end of the tamping rod) while everyone else rests. Then the next person can take ten swings.”
So, this was our system, and it took us about thirty minutes to dig one hole, but we were making progress. One unruly kid from the detention center hated the world and sat off to the side and refused to help. Isaac asked him, “Hey, why don’t you help us out?” “I don’t like you guys, and I don’t want to be here,” he said. “Well, suit yourself,” Isaac said.
We dug three more holes, and then the elderly Navajo lady in traditional dress came out of her trailer. Our tough guy jumped off the ground and ran to help the lady down her front steps, and he held her arm as he led her to our holes. “Let us know if these holes are deep enough and wide enough,” he said. “We want to do a good job for you.” We could not believe him.
The tough guy led the wise elder back to a chair and sat down and talked to her while we dug more holes. She got up and our tough guy helped her back into her trailer. When he came back to us, Isaac said, “I thought you didn’t like people.” “I love old people,” he said. “They are the only people in the world I love.” “Why’s that?” Isaac asked. “I don’t know. I just do.” He went and sat down again.
We dug another hole and Isaac, who couldn’t leave well enough alone, asked the tough guy, “What about babies?” “What about’m,” he said. “Do you love babies?” Isaac asked. “No,” the tough guy said.
“You mean, if you saw a baby alone in a basket, you wouldn’t help that baby out?” Isaac asked. “Isaac, just let him be,” I said.
“If there was no one to help that baby, I’d help him out because he’s vulnerable like an old person,” the tough guy said. “So, you must love babies too,” Isaac said. “Yeah, I guess so. Old people and babies. But that’s it.”
We just shook our heads, but Isaac was on to something big.
“In Christmas, God doesn’t send a super-hero to rid the earth of evil by forcefully destroying all that’s bad. God sends a helpless baby, lying in the straw, needing to be picked up, nursed, nurtured. That’s God’s wisdom. Babies don’t shoot bad guys, they change hearts by offering a gentler presence,” writes Rolheiser.
Haven’t we found this to be true?
“Christmas does not rid the world of evil,” writes Rolheiser. We will have wars and rumors of war, injustice and unnecessary suffering will persist. We will have moments where we wonder if anything will ever change. We will experience ill-health, death, and broken relationships in need of mending.
Yet Isaiah says, “A young woman will give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel,” (Isaiah 7:14). This name means God is with us. “Christmas is the challenge to celebrate while we (the collective whole and individuals) are still in pain,” writes Rolheiser.
We do not walk alone through the valleys and peaks of life. Divine Grace, Love, and Compassion are with us. Is this enough? Does it change the world one healed person at a time?
Christmas says there is power in powerlessness. A little baby born in a manger. An elderly Navajo woman who can soften the heart of a hardened teenage boy.
The world is “shimmering with divinity” says Avery Dulles. We are not alone. Merry Christmas.
Blessings and peace,