Fr. Tom McKenna of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission, reminds us that there are moments of pain and suffering sprinkled through narratives of the birth of Christ, He asks why? What might this mean for Vincentians?
Light Through Darkness (Lk. 1-2)
In this season of the light of Jesus’ birth overcoming the darkness and the cold, it seems to go against the grain to pick out notes of death and suffering. They come through in scarcely noticed sidebars such as Mary’s unease at the Angel’s announcement, Herod’s treacherous request to the three Kings, the innkeeper’s refusal to take in the expectant couple, and Simeon’s warning about swords in the future. How does this dying strain fit into such a life-giving happening? It’s a question that extends well beyond the infancy narrative, all the way to the child’s eventual demise on a cross.
One frame to interpret this juxtaposition of dark and light was the 4th Century approach of St. Anselm known as substitutionary atonement. In it, the honor of God the Father was so tarnished by humanity’s sins that it could be refurbished only by the selfless act of a sin-free person — by the death of God’s own Son. In recent years many have come to recast Jesus’ suffering in a very different light. Rather than the payment due an insulted and angry God, it’s interpreted as part of an unbreakable assurance of God’s nearness, a pledge that even (and especially) in the dreadful dying of Jesus, God hovers close. This freely accepted death communicates solidarity, not anger. It reveals the Spirit’s abiding throughout life and particularly in those fear-filled moments leading up to life’s final hour.
Given this context, the darker notes in the Christmas story can better harmonize with its overriding message: Emmanuel, God is with us. Though threat lurks in the shadows, underlying it is the divine assurance that we don’t face these menaces alone. The darker current running against the Holy Family is not a piece of some price paid out to an offended Father but is the reverse side of the more luminous undercurrent: God is always drawing near. It conveys accompaniment rather than repayment.
The Vincentian call to walk with those who live in darkness resonates here. Service to people who are poor often brings us into contact with somber and even death-dealing situations. But the Christmas truth is that God’s light suffuses the dimness of those times and in the end beats back the encroaching darkness. Though perhaps poetic-sounding in the face of discouragement, these light-filled stories bring substance to the claim that we’re not alone in that dark, that God encircles us with what mystics have called a dazzling darkness, that in the depths of the night God’s arrival coming dawn breaks through.
Though there’s a dark thread spooling through all the light, even that bit gives off a hopeful message if we interpret it rightly. The all loving God is accompanying us just there. In Jesus, the divine compassion draws near both in the bright events of life and just as much in the cloud-covered ones.