The promise and the challenge of Christmas
“But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…’” Matthew1: 20
The words of the Angel of the Lord “do not be afraid” from the Gospel of Matthew on the 4th Sunday of Advent not only hold a promise that is both a source of consolation and comfort, but are also a call to action.
The Angel urges Joseph to go ahead and take Mary as his wife. It is both a promise and an urging “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints…” (Romans 1:7). All of us are called to be Holy.
The truth and fulfillment of these words is expressed in the lives of people who, despite their fears, live their lives with courage and commitment. Their fear is real and justified. Many human rights workers, journalists and environmental defenders have paid with their lives for their convictions. And yet from the ashes of their deaths, new life is born in the many people who continue to work for justice and peace. And this they do despite their fear.
This fall I had the privilege to participate in a meeting in Rome on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat. It gathered people like Fr David Salomon who has been beaten and arrested in India for fighting against coal mining and its impact on local Indigenous communities in India; or my friend Kep Phokthavi who since I met her over 25 years ago, has worked in a detention centre in Bangkok with undocumented migrants and trafficked women; or Rampe Hlobo, a Jesuit from South Africa, who has worked with refugees and migrants for decades.
I also had the privilege of moderating a panel with Fr Ismael Moreno, whom we all know as Melo. Speaking from a reality where violence, threats, and death are used to instill fear in the population, he spoke of the millions of voices in his country of Honduras, who live “between ungrateful death and the desire to live.” Many flee from their land “because they cling to the life that is taken from them in their homeland.”
When I see boatloads of refugees crossing the Mediterranean despite knowing the danger that they may face in the journey, the unwelcome reception they might get in Europe and the difficult life ahead of them, I know they must be afraid, but they go just the same. In so doing they give witness to their belief in the promise of the Angel to not be afraid and to act accordingly.
I remember a young woman I met in a rural clinic in Madhya Pradesh in India who had just given birth to a little girl. I asked the Sister who had assisted her in the birth why this new mother with a beautiful baby girl in her arms looked so sad. The sister told me, “She is probably afraid.”
When you consider the fact that in a couple of days, she would start her long journey back to her village where there would be a significant chance that her new baby would not survive, where it would be hard, if not impossible, for her daughter to ever go to school, it is understandable why she would be afraid. Yet I know that she, like many mothers like her, would fight against her fear, walk back and do everything in her power to give that little girl the opportunity to live life to the fullest.
I am friends with a young family who came to Canada last year seeking refuge. They left Colombia because they were afraid for their lives. The same people who killed the young man’s father 15 years ago, now threatened him and his family. From one day to the next, they left everything: their families, their jobs, their possessions. With their 3 year old child, they came to a new country where they did not speak the language and did not know anyone.
He, a lawyer, is now working digging trenches in the Toronto cold to support his family while they await the determination of their status as refugees. They are grateful to be here and are ready to build a new life with hope and determination. They heard the voice of the Angel “do not be afraid” and have opted for life.
The child that Mary carried would be named Emmanuel, which means “God is with us” (Matthew 1: 18-24). This is the source of strength and hope to so many in the world. As Melo said in Rome, “To live and celebrate life from a place of marginality and fear is an unequivocal sign of being in the place from where God, the Lord of the dawn, invites us to continue the mission of Jesus of Nazareth, and to risk sharing with him, from our condition as sinners, the fate of the poor of the earth.”
It is from the margins that our fears are alleviated and our faith is nourished. This is the promise and the challenge of Christmas.