What's on your gift list?

  • December 2, 2010
For some time, I’ve been part of a ministry called Project Rachel. Here I’ve seen women weep like Rachel (Jeremiah 31:15-17) for their children, lost to them through abortion. They carry, often for years, a many-faceted pain. It’s about death of the most anguishing kind, a child’s death; about guilt, the awareness that one’s own actions have helped bring about that death; about oppression, the tacit sense that one shouldn’t be grieving or suffering at all, because it’s a suffering our world prefers not to acknowledge.

Project Rachel is a ministry of reconciliation and healing, through encounter with the living God. Anyone can understand this need, as we all know the suffering caused by sin. And we all can know the freedom, the radical transformation, that forgiveness brings. Through it, we can leave the old behind and walk a new path. No therapy, no science, can accomplish this, but only the freely, constantly poured out gift of mercy.

How can we let go of all we carry and allow such new life to begin where for so long nothing has grown? It’s easier, sometimes, to hold on to our pain and remain where we are. No wonder we often keep parts of our hearts closed and hidden away from view, even our own. It seems that God respects this, as He always respects our freedom and dignity.  Yet He doesn’t forget — indeed, He loves — the hidden places. And He knows much more than we do about timing:  when to wait, when to touch, to speak, to act.

We experience this patient, hidden divine work in many ways, but never more deeply than in Advent, which is the Church’s way of preparing us to receive one single gift. Christmas has become, in our society, a time of exchanging gifts; sometimes we pressure ourselves to get or be given enough gifts, the right gifts, expensive gifts. God gives just one Christmas gift; and He knows we need help in order to let it in.

Advent is an invitation into the silence and darkness of our hearts, the very place we so assiduously and creatively flee during much of our waking life. The weeks leading up to Christmas have become the precise opposite of the Church’s invitation during these same days. Rather than collect things, the Church asks us to let go; rather than make light and noise, to enter into darkness and silence; rather than party till Dec. 25, to fast from comforts and be led inside our hearts until Dec. 25.

We may discover that darkness and silence aren’t frightening, but awesome and majestic. That we ourselves, close-up, aren’t loathsome, even if we have experienced or perpetrated ugliness.

How can we let go and allow new life in the rocky, barren earth of our lives? How can we become bearers of God, we little ones with our shattered hearts, our failures and mistakes? There is a way.

For the last eight days before Christmas, in the ancient monasteries, seven beautiful hymns were created: the “O Antiphons,” which call upon God in seven ways. The seventh is sung on Dec. 23, “O Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” The whole preparation time of Advent leads to this one gift: God With Us.

Christ’s Nativity isn’t a warm, fuzzy holiday, but a revelation of God’s power present in our midst, where we’d forgotten to look for Him. We may have been scanning the heavens for Him, or we may have ceased to look up; so He came in lowliness, in the dust and sweat of poverty, in the vulnerability of a child in the womb.    

In those days as in ours, evil couldn’t confront the Good One. So it attacked the weakest and the innocent.  It used the quest of the Magi, whose search for salvation led them on a long dark journey. Following them, not in hope but in desperation, it sought out and destroyed the innocent babies, commemorated on Dec. 26.   

And Christ’s Nativity asks us to become vulnerable as God became vulnerable. Rather than bearing armour and sword, we are to bear God, as Mary bears God. To learn the power of our weakness. How else to let go our personal and collective burdens?  

The Nativity narratives give witness of those who’ve done so: Mary, Joseph, the shepherds who took in all the glory of the heavens, the wise ones on their magnificent journey. We have such witnesses all around us today, in places and faces that might surprise us.  

O Emmanuel! King and Lawgiver, desire of the nations, Saviour of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.