Seeing the unseeable for Christmas

  • November 29, 2011

First Woman: “There’s one at Yonge and Finch. I’ve heard it’s good.”

(Me — overhearing in the fitness-centre change room — “A club? A restaurant?”)

First Woman: “I’m not sure if it’s Lutheran or Catholic.”

(Me – “I’m imagining she said that.”)

Second Woman: “I’ve been going to church for a while. I tried the Martyrs’ Shrine.”

Listening to their conversation, not spoken clandestinely but audible throughout the change-room, I pondered. Why not speak to people about my faith? Nobody in this gym, to which I’ve long belonged, has any idea I’m Christian. Here are two seekers freely, and loudly, discussing their faith in a secular setting.

They were, accidentally but unabashedly, “witnessing” their faith. Being a witness is a Christian duty, and joy. If I experience something wonderful, there’s an impulse to tell others. It’s just too good not to share! (Last week I visited friends who delighted in showing off their brand-new baby; who could be interested in anything else? they seemed to say.)

Pope Paul VI said people listen to teachers only if they are witnesses. Witnessing means speaking not just from the head, but from the inner depths. If those belong to Christ, then witnessing means giving Christ to others. 

The first people acclaimed saints were martyrs — people who witness to the point of death. These Advent days, we prepare to celebrate Christ’s nativity Dec. 25, followed by St. Stephen (26th) and the Holy Innocents (28th).

Only one day to revel in birth before we must recollect death, violent death. Did Christ come to bring life or death? T.S. Eliot, imagining the Magi’s thoughts: “We had seen birth before, and death, but had thought they were different.”

The Church has always had a special love for martyrs, beginning with Stephen. Not because the Church worships death; that’s a contemporary cultural affliction. Rather, because “love for life didn’t deter them from death.” 

Who are the martyrs, the witnesses-unto-death, in our world? The women in the gym dared to bring God into a seemingly godless place. I know people who tell their co-workers they’re going out at lunch-time, not to a restaurant, but to Mass.

We may take risks with our career lives, or our social lives, to express our love of God. Stephen didn’t live his life knowing he’d be a martyr. Nor do we know how our love of God will require our lives. 

This may mean standing up for life against the current drive to make euthanasia officially legal in Canada. Or against the economic imperative to promote our own wealth at the expense of the poor. It may mean seeing what the world prefers to hide, although such witness might be dangerous.

A 1993 photograph gives witness, and perhaps cost the photographer his life. It features a tiny child bent over with weakness, hunger and weariness. In the background is a waiting vulture. Photographer Kevin Carter stepped aside from the journalists covering a food-station in Sudan and discovered this hidden, lone child — its life, completely vulnerable to others’ care, about to be thrown away like refuse. 

Perhaps it’s to remind us that the Christ-child gives us everything, but requires of us everything, that the Church follows the commemoration of His nativity so closely with the feast of the Holy Innocents.

Like that tiny Sudanese child, the Holy Innocents were little ones, their lives extinguished by power and greed. They were born into the world at the same time as Christ Himself. At the very moment when the heavens were broken open, with angels revealing the glory that’s everywhere and singing of peace on Earth, these tiny children were murdered to protect earthly power. 

That killing came indirectly because of Christ’s birth — through the wise ones who visited both the power of the King and the poverty of the Bethlehem manger.

They remind us, as does the dying Sudanese child, that even the Prince of Peace arrived on Earth doesn’t produce instant peace, but instant martyrdom. God doesn’t impose peace upon us; He woos it out of us, out of our free will, wedded as it is to sin and violence.

Christ came for this: to bring God to us. To overpower us with God’s love, arriving not in splendour but in lowliness, coming not to the King’s palace but to a poor young couple.

He came with a love that draws love out of us, beyond our fears, beyond our capacity to sacrifice our own children to these fears — whether by the sword like Herod, or by abortion like Canadian custom, or by neglect as with the nameless Sudanese child. 

There is only one Christmas gift: caro verbum factum est, the Word made flesh, God-with-us, just as we are, not as we wish we were. What if we, too, gave that Christmas gift to one another and to our world? What kind of witness would we give?