REALITY: The Birthplace of Jesus

I’m not used to masculine violence – the sheer strength and force of it. It happened once before when I was about fifteen years old. A lad headbutted my face in the Community Centre under the church in Mervue, leaving me nicely bruised and I told the lie that I had banged my face off the countertop, ashamed to say what had actually happened.

That was then and now, last week on the Monday before Christmas, I encountered the violence of men again. Accidentally. In the wrong place at the wrong time. Standing in the doorway of Iceland, two men went for each other with their fists, and I happened to be in the way. Stood between them. And for the space of a minute or less I was rattled back and forth like a rag doll. Another man entered the fray, and I suffered a severe blow to the left side of my lower back. The force of it shocked me. Then the fight ended and I limped away, dazed and in great pain.

It was a rude awakening from the serenity that I had planned in the lead-up to Christmas, shook me out of my idealized stupor, my spiritual snobbery, bringing me right down to earth with a bang. Instead of rushing about I would spend more time in contemplation and prayer. And I would visit all the housebound of the parish. That was the plan. I told it to God and He must have laughed as they say He does when we tell Him our plans.

Pain became the dominant feature of the week and it slowed everything down. Unable to bend to put on my socks, I resorted to the pole we use for opening windows. With great skill! It proved useful with everything I wore from the waist down. And I learned how to move and not to move. Sadly, I only got to visit a few of the parishioners. In the privacy of my house, I allowed myself to scream. In public I clenched my teeth.

I realize that I had come in touch with a reality that is common to many people and while I occupy myself with suffering on a grand scale, like Ukraine and the Holy Land, this is local and very real. Personal and felt, not just physically but mentally and emotionally also. The shock of it.

My reflections on Christmas all had to do with Jesus coming into the reality of our lives –  while we spend a lot of stress and energy into trying to make it perfect, striving to get it right for those we love, often ending up too exhausted to enjoy it.

The Stable in Bethlehem is itself a stark reminder that the location and the reality of the original Christmas was anything but ideal, a place somehow chosen by God for the birth of His Son as man, to remind us that He comes into the inappropriate and unacceptable aspects of our lives. He comes there to save, not to be entertained. He comes as giver of the Gift of new Life. And no-one is excluded from it.

Reality is the word that kept coming into my mind, reality as distinct from fantasy. The reality of sirens that announce suffering of one kind or another; the reality of sickness; the reality of grief; the reality of mental illness; the reality of broken relationships; the reality of addiction; the reality of war; the reality of death. The reality of common physical violence. The common reality of sin.

And so, the Christmas I had dreamed of proved to be an illusion. The Christmas I experienced was real, painful, exhausting, and wonderful. After the last Mass on Christmas Eve, I was barely able to keep going and wondered how on earth I would be able for Christmas day. Well, miracles of miracles, I felt a bit better next day and every day since. So, I smile and say that celebrating five Masses in one day is a great cure for an injured body.

Whatever your reality is right now – this is the birthplace of Jesus, this is the stable into which Christ is born, the manger in which his body is laid down – and His is the body we can hold close to our hearts to soften and to warm what is in need of His tenderness.

Of course, He is also born into our joys and our loves; into the enthusiastic gatherings that took place in our church for every one of our Masses; into the silent visitations of those who can only come to the church when it is empty and quiet. Very visibly present in the children who crowded round the Crib to gaze and to sing. In the young adults returned from wherever life has taken them. In the elders who are constant  in their presence.

And He is truly visible to me in every handshake and hug, in every person I have the grace to encounter, in the abundance of gifts that fill my dining room table and in the families who have brought me to their table.

God was surprisingly, even shockingly present to me in the fight that took place on that Monday evening. Present as He was to Jacob with whom He wrestled, Jacob who went away from the encounter limping. Present too in the wars and in the questions that these wars raise in our minds. Present as He was in the cry of Jesus on the Cross, “my God, my God why…?” Silent but present.