I spent Christmas 2010 in Haiti, living in the Girardoville slum. The following was penned during that trip.
To live in Haiti within the confined context of a small, impoverished space is to confront my own selfishness. Instead of seeing the needs of others, I see only what I am lacking…such as a clean, private bathroom. It is in places of destitution I see my own true destitution. While submersed in a netherworld misery and suffering in Haiti during Advent of 2010, I began to hear more clearly the subversive and prophetic words of the Canticle of Mary. The Magnificat boldly proclaims God has “cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.” Mary sings about the hungry, those who have been denied access to stable food supply, because she believes God promise that the weak and vulnerable will be lifted up. We may sing those words, but we don’t really take them seriously. But the reality is that the birth of God will turn everything upside down. Mary prophesies a new world in which no one is hungry or exploited, when all the lowly are lifted to a place of dignity. (The word that has been translated as “lowly” was often used in Septuagent to refer to the sexual humiliation of women.) And choosing a Virgin to be the Mother of God was no accident; in fact, it spoke loudly to God’s preference for the lowly and the outcast. In the Jewish world of the Old Testament, virginity was not seen as a virtue; in fact, virginity was held in very low esteem, considered to be useless, despised and pointless. Virginity struck a strong negative chord. But Christ, of course, befriended the weak and fragile. The deeper message here is that God makes our barrenness fruitful. And so Mary sings of a time when all who are poor will be filled with the rich bounty of God. That song becomes our song as we feed the hungry and lift up the lowly.
In John’s Gospel we read: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” As I walked St. Peter’s Church on Christmas morning, past the misery of the crowded tent city, it was abundantly clear that much darkness continues to abound in our world. Yet, we know, believe and see that there also is much Light. Holding the tension of the darkness and the light and being agents of peaceful change in the world is our primary task in life.
As I walked in the darkness past a park crammed with tents on my way to midnight Mass, the words of Mary’s Canticle in Luke’s Gospel were ringing out loudly in my mind. We are the instruments Christ wishes to use to lift up the lowly and feed the hungry. On Christmas Day in churches around the world I’m sure you will find lots of sweet and sentimental piety, but I doubt you will hear how the truth of the Gospel should compel us to speak out against the reality of the poor living in tents, going to sleep hungry. The promise of liberation is the essential message of the Incarnation, which frees us from all kinds of bondage. It is essential that we build a bridge between spirituality and social justice, which would be a true Christmas gift to the world.
Sadly, the Christmas season has become a paean to consumerism. The frenzied shopping drive used to not begin before the leftover Thanksgiving turkey was eaten, but today it begins before the big bird is even cooked. Before the agony of finding the right gift, comes the agony of finding a parking space in the mall…and then the agony of standing in a long line to use your already over-extended credit card to buy something you think is dumb but you hope will let someone know you care about them. Chances are the gift you buy will be made in a factory in China or Mexico by people who are over-worked, under-paid and very hungry.