Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
It was my second consecutive Christmas away from home, far from family and friends, and I was not looking forward to it at all. In fact, the anticipation of being off from school for a few weeks (I should note here that I was in seminary for these two Christmases, and so my separation was not of the same sort as the separation experienced by those who find themselves in foxholes or places of real danger in service to their country) was causing me some significant stress. I survived the first year away, but there were several days in which I experienced a profound loneliness that I was not eager to repeat. But there it loomed on the calendar: Christmas number two on foreign shores. I made up my mind, along with a fellow seminarian (who now serves God and country as a Catholic chaplain in the US Navy), to at least go to a place where, while not America, we would know the language. With inadequate consideration, we arranged a trip to London, finding the cheapest airfare and cheapest hotel possible. And we were mostly miserable. We discovered a small convent with an exciting prospect for a Christmas Day Mass, which gave us some heart. On Christmas Eve we attended the Midnight Mass at Westminster (Catholic) Cathedral. The choir was sublime, and before Mass began, we had the opportunity to go to confession and ask God’s mercy for our misery and carping throughout the week. Upon completion of the Mass, we realized that, at 2 AM on Christmas morning, London did not have any public transportation available, leaving us with the prospect of a three mile walk back to our hotel. As our unhappiness returned during that cold walk, we watched a very intoxicated man have an argument with a garbage can, passed through a neighborhood that seemed to have no idea that it was Christmas, and then, very unexpectedly, we found ourselves laughing at the utter silliness of our spirit. A few hours later, we were at Mass with the sisters at Tyburn Convent and our mood began to change.
Tyburn Convent was established in 1901 at the site where over 100 Catholic martyrs gave their lives after King Henry VIII’s break with the Church. Praying at the creche and celebrating the Lord’s Nativity at that site, where so many had given the ultimate witness for their faith in Christ was a truly humbling experience that reframed the rest of the trip. What hardships they had endured, what uncertainty and danger had accompanied their every move! That sense of uncertainty was of course present for Mary and Joseph as they looked for a place to stay, far from their own village, seemingly alone and unknown in the world. For the English martyrs, it seemed that the Catholic Church’s very existence was being torn from them, yet centuries later there, at the place where they had shed their blood as witnesses, two American seminarians were praying at a Mass offered by an African Cardinal for religious sisters from all over Europe. Against all expectations, the faith persevered. Against all expectations and worldly wisdom, God was at work in Bethlehem.
In the Christian life, it behooves us to remember the surprising ways in which God wants to work on our behalf. Even in our moments of suffering and misery, our Lord comes to be with us. In fact, this is central to the message of Christmas. Into the darkness of sin and death, the Messiah makes His appearance. The mission begins in unseen, unexpected ways, and yet is undeniably the movement of God toward His people. As people encountered Jesus, they would come to understand and know Him, to see the fulfillment of the law and the prophets and so to read the ancient Scriptures with new eyes, surprised by the work that God had been doing all along. On that Christmas Day, the frustration and disappointment of being far from home began to dissipate as I saw the ways God had been at work. It was no accident that we found Tyburn Convent, no accident that our forced march across the city had taken place, for in finding that tiny chapel, in walking that cold walk, we had been invited to see God’s care for us, to experience something of the journey to Bethlehem, and to take up our cross, confident that that God who broke into our darkness on Christmas would continue to enlighten our hearts and lives with His love.
Returning to Rome, there was one Christmas lesson left to learn. On the first day back to classes, a friend and seminarian from England asked what I had done for the break. His face fell when I told him I had gone to London. “I wish you told me before,” he said. “My parents always have room at their house – it would have been great to host you with my family.” I had become so focused on being unhappy, so distressed (I say all this to my genuine embarrassment) by being far from home, that I failed to recognize the friends I had made right in front of me. Suffering can isolate us. But if we are to learn anything from Christmas, it is that we believe in a God who sees our suffering and will not leave us orphan, alone, or isolated. Rather, He comes to us if only we have the eyes to see. An opportunity to see had passed me by, and I was faced with the dilemma: rue the day I failed to share my travel plans with my English friend, or marvel at how God could still pour out generous graces in spite of my stubbornness and blindness. Because that, too, is part of Christmas and part of following our newborn King. Throughout Advent, John the Baptist called us to repent and prepare the way for the Lord to come, and so it is perfectly right for us to regret our past sin and to be critical of our past errors. But throughout Advent, we were also invited to see the promises God had made to his people and to see that they were being fulfilled again and again, in spite of human frailty and sinfulness. God desires to be with us, even though we fall short of His glory, He wants us to know Him, even though we are so often blind to His presence. As we celebrate this holy day and welcome the Light of Christ into our darkness, may we receive grace upon grace, letting the light of the Christ child illuminate our loneliness, our suffering, our isolation, and show us the way to peace.