By Father Pat Dolan
Even as we hear singers proclaim “and heaven and nature sing,” we are mindful that this has been a year marked by more tragedy than festivity. Most of us have watched this year as we see prejudice continue to tear apart our world and devastate countless lives. We have witnessed Islamic extremists twisting real religion into a thin disguise for political ambition and raw bigotry, as well as the continued individual acts of terror visited upon young black men in our own country by systems that continue to rationalize and justify our own racism. We have seen the shame of our own country’s political process, once the purview of diplomats and statesmen, reduced to a reality-TV style spectacle that leaves all involved with too little dignity to represent our people among the world’s nations.
In the midst of all this mess, our Pope has called us to a year of mercy, and true to form, within days, voices from within and outside of our Church have begun their attempts to quickly massage the meaning of the word to their own agendas. Still the standard definitions of this word continue to move us toward kind and forgiving behavior toward someone when harsher treatment is a possibility. Mercy comes from the very sense of compassion we celebrate this season.
God, who could do away with creation, could simply ignore it or could hold it in some sort of condemnation, chooses to bond with it. He comes to walk alongside those whom he could rightly judge as being beneath his notice. This mercy comes not only from a place of deep compassion but one of lofty vision. God sees the world as it could be. Our own vision is too often more earthbound.
In our affluent culture it is not an uncommon practice for children to be invited to make a “Christmas list.” It is not even that uncommon for many to see their lists realized by busy, behind the scene forces. And while I have often wondered at the wisdom of annually nurturing such an entitlement mentality in young minds still in the process of formation, I wonder even more at the smallness of the results and ensuing visions. Given the belief that some magical being will bring them what they desire, it’s actually quite amazing that young children’s “asks” stay in the area of video games or hover-boards (regardless of the lithium laden dangers).
Even the most confused and nervous of beauty pageant participants would be able to mutter something about “world peace” when asked what they want. Do our children simply want less? Are they that short sighted and self-centered? Or, as I suspect, do they pick up from those around them an unspoken, self-evident understanding of the limits of their Christmas lists and what hopes remain beyond the expectations of elves and sleigh rides? The sadness in this last thought is that we have all been raised to hope for too little. We have not had Christmas overrun by commercialism, but belittled by it. We hear the story of the Creator of all things, the Supreme Being, God, or any other title lofty enough to convey what is beyond expression, coming to be among us as one of us and to bring us into an eternal place of light . . . and from this fantastical event, we have learned to hope for a new drone or an Apple watch.
Over the past few weeks I have tried to reframe the winter darkness as a sacred space within which we can begin to dream. The most tragic victim of our holiday “rush” is the possibility for quiet reflection. Given time to sit in the dark and envision the world we cannot see, what images might we paint? Can we even list the vast number of more pointless gifts throughout our lives which have been received, trifled with, set aside and soon forgotten without any real enrichment having taken place?
What are the true gifts of this amazing season that we might seek out, discover and begin using to intentionally live in the story of heaven and earthly nature coming together? Whom might we forgive? Who might we seek to better understand? What internal beliefs about others could we begin to challenge, not that we ever get rid of our prejudices, but so that we stop living out of them? How do we look at all that has happened in the past year and begin to offer mercy and hope?
What do we need to begin the work envisioned by the Child for whom “heaven and nature” both sing? Maybe the answers to such questions should top our Christmas list as we begin this year of mercy. I believe there is no greater witness to our faith in God than our mercy for one another. There is likewise no greater gift. I am reminded this season of young Malala Yousafzai who after all she has been through says, “I believe in peace. I believe in mercy.” I believe that such are the visions and dreams that may once again bring heaven and earth into joyful song.
– Fr. Pat Dolan, Most Precious Blood Church, Denver, Colorado (click here to read about Father Pat)