Also published at WetheP, Inc.
By Andrea Morisette Grazzini, with Rev. Fr. Michael J. O’Connell
Hipster pastor Roger Wolsey, a Huffington Post-published United Methodist, preached ‘holiday’ trivia on his Facebook recently, slipping in that the word translates from ‘holy.’
As for Catholics like me, we lay claim to the etymology of ‘Christmas,’ which means, literally: ‘Christ’s Mass.’
Not to brag, but this year’s celebration is extra exciting for us. That’s the head of our Church depicted on the cover of The New Yorker—sprawled in the snow, making like an angel. He’s been anointed ‘Person of the Year,’ too, by at least three magazines: GQ, The Advocate and Time.
Regardless one’s read of religious linguistics, and, for that matter, religion itself (or rejection thereof), many join our delight in the unfiltered Love our ‘People’s Pontiff’ embodies. We Joyfully adore his inclusive ways of cultivating Peace. His guileless mix of honesty, humility and humaneness gives us great Hope.
Love, Joy, Peace and Hope, of course, are Christmas promises. But whether said with scriptural semiotics or secular simplicity, the essence of these sentiments can be, lets face it: hard to believe. Especially in this disorienting world crippled by distraction, disillusionment and disconnection.
Why the holidays, for all their marketed merriment, are difficult for so many. Sure, families gather across generations. Young couples show off engagement rings, grandparents coo over babies. Parents, as always, scramble to create credible Santa scenarios. Friends catch up with cards and cocktails. Many people are more generous, remembering the reason for the season: God’s gift of a Son. The baby all this Christmas fuss is ‘really’ about.
Meanwhile, many suffer severe lacks of both material gifts and, more importantly: meaningful relationships. They sit isolated and alone in unseen sadness. Nursing home residents and hospital patients, homeless indigents, inmates of prisons, or prisoners of homes they can’t leave. Families struggling to buy food, not to mention gifts. Or stuck in spiraling cycles of addiction, avoidance or abuse. Many encounter deep darkness and regret.
We can begin to know how they feel if we dare do some Easter-ish thinking. Namely, on shame. Us Catholics must admit much of ours is self-made. Brought by unconscionably unchecked, unchristian behaviors. The priest pedophilia, political aggrandizement and misdirected power that’s plagued our leaders, pulling parishioners from our pews.
The Good News is that shame is precisely what the presence of the Christ Child is meant to absolve. It’s where Christmastime peace comes from. God’s gift meant for us to encounter in person through unfettered affection in the accessible form of an innocent human–a child like we once were. It’s what makes the story of an infant carried in a single mother’s womb so miraculous to believers.
There’s another whose forgiveness shows up in the Nativity. Someone we maybe can relate better to. Just a common man trying to take care of his family.
Saint of a Husband
“We would do well to meditate on Saint Joseph,” Pope Francis preached late last week. “Let us think about him and his loving concern for his Spouse and for the Baby Jesus.”
We can forgive the Holy Father his understatement. ‘Loving concern’ hardly encompasses the full implications of Joseph’s actions. Here’s a strapping carpenter, engaged to a virgin—who’s carrying someone else’s baby!
An angel, we’re told, coaxed Joseph to trust the teen’s purity. Can you imagine? Doing so would violate everything he knew. Jerusalem was brutally misogynistic. The only acceptable response to Mary’s situation would have been to ostracize her, at least. More likely she’d be sentenced to swift death by stoning.
We don’t know if Joseph fully believed the angel. We do know he didn’t fully buy its reassurances. The young man was afraid, probably as much of his friends, family and fellow citizens, as anything. They would have scorned his choice. Still, he defied ‘common sense’ with something like inspired instinct, setting aside any selfish impulses and understandable doubts to accompany his young wife on a precarious journey.
Then, going only on the instructions of this apparition, Joseph made sure his surrogate son was given the name that would reveal the child’s other paternity: ‘Emmanuel’ which means, “God is with you.”
For all this, Joseph is indeed a worthy focus for reflection.
Perhaps we can be inspired by his unselfish commitment. Rather than passively hoping and waiting for proof of Love, maybe we can accept a proactive role in our own contextually representative Nativity. Draw on our deepest instincts to give, support and cultivate relationships that go beyond the boundaries of our egos and the social ‘norms’ that inform them.
In other words: Can we pay it forward? Like two fathers: one in holy heaven, one humble here on earth who escorted a woman and her son to a safe delivery and new life. One created to dissolve the shame and despair that leaves us disillusioned and disconnected–away and apart from our truest selves. This ‘Self’ of ours being the one God (if we believe) and Joseph (even if we don’t believe) as history proves, would unconditionally accompany anywhere.
If so, we must set aside dubious entitlements that insist individualism, above all, is our absolute right. We must recognize how it dulls emotions and blinds instincts so thoroughly we’ve come to believe Hope is naïve, Joy something that isn’t experienced so much as acquired, and Peace? Not a chance.
What if we pick up on the concept of Emmanuel, by ‘being with?’ As Pope Francis said, “feel(ing) close to one another on this final stretch to Bethlehem.” While we’re at it we can pick up Joseph’s path of concern, compassion and companionship.
Can we set aside our fears, foibles and frustrations to find the sort of simple, sustained human connectedness that produces profound changes? Perhaps befriending a lonely neighbor? Scheduling regular visits to someone shut in? Maybe lending time to an addict, a hand to a victim, or needed attention to a child? How about helping a single mother on her overwhelming journey?
We could give grace to one another while finding it in ourselves. Suspending judgment and embracing the radical tenderness at the core of our humanity, contained deep in our hearts. We could begin to see in each other something more concrete, immediate and believable than angels and virgin births.
Here’s the real miracle: we could see with clarity the power of our own gifts, too. Glorious, generous potentials we’d never imagine even in our most narcissistically absorbed moments.
Reflected in co-commitments to be ‘with’ each other, ignoring the usual failings and if you will, sins, along the way, we could begin to see and, yes, believe the kind of transcendent experience this Baby Jesus brought to so many is not only possible, but not all that hard to replicate, in some ways.
Perfectly Humble Human
Now might be the perfect time to uncover our truer selves. The ones hidden behind harried, homogenized lives. We might dare go beyond superficial boundaries and deeper to discover our untapped potentials. To encounter finally and fully the gifts of Joy, Peace and realized Hope Christmastime offers.
This holiday is the perfect time to embark on a holy journey. And shamelessly reveal the gifts of our innate humaneness with willful intention to enact it Lovingly, from now on.
Fr. Micheal J. O’Connell, is pastor at Ascension Catholic Church, in North Minneapolis, Minnesota. The former rector at Basilica of St. Mary founded The Jeremiah Program a residential organization that supports single mothers earning college degrees. He is known for his work in multi-faith leadership and human justice efforts. He serves numerous boards and initiatives, including as Chair of The Hazelden Foundation.