New Year's Eve 2004 Meditation
by Ingrid Shafer
On Tuesday, December 14 I turned in grades for the fall term. That evening I planned to start completing a couple of long overdue articles. Instead, I couldn’t stop thinking of a website I had promised to build as a birthday surprise for retired Archbishop Leobard D’Souza of Nagpur, India. Since the archbishop’s 75th birthday would be January 18, the site wasn’t needed until the second or third week of January, and I had intended to work on it after my return from a brief Christmas visit to my son’s family in Berkeley. But for some unfathonable reason, the project wouldn’t leave me alone. It haunted me to the extent of waking me up at three and four in the morning, demanding my full attention. And so I forgot about the articles, and even the Christmas presents I had intended to make, and concentrated on the website for the next week. In addition to tributes in several languages from all over the world, Catherine Berry Stidsen, the instigator of this project, had sent me about two dozen homilies, articles, and interviews by and with “Bishop Bhai,” as his friends and family call him, and I worked around the clock to turn all of this material into a coherent cybersite for Leobard and the world to enjoy. As I was adding Leobard’s words, I found myself gently overwhelmed by his understanding of the Christian message. There seemed no more important thing for me to do in preparation for Christmas than working on this project.
Monday evening, December 21, I received an e-mail from Catherine that she had arrived safely in Nagpur, and I replied that a preliminary website draft was ready for her appraisal. The next morning, I discovered that she hadn’t waited for January, and had immediately shown the site to Leobard, who wrote his own thanks to me “for this wonderful gift for my birthday” and, according to Catherine, continued to enjoy the site for the next couple of days while he was working on answering some 400 Christmas cards. On the 23rd she sent pictures of Leo’s ordination anniversary party which I posted on the website. The following day he was expected to travel to a neighboring village.
On December 24 I flew to Berkeley, and when there was no e-mail from Catherine or Leo I assumed they were busy with Christmas festivities. The morning of December 26 I could barely see the computer screen through my tears as I scrolled through page after page of breaking news of the tens of thousands presumed dead throughout Southeast Asia in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami. For some reason a comment by an anonymous fisherman struck me: “God chose only to save a few of us.” GOD CHOSE!!!!! Why would anyone imagine that God chose to save a few when that assumption implied that God also chose to allow the many to die? What a twisted understanding of God masquerading as piety! Whenever I hear people thanking God for saving them when others have perished I want to shout at them to THINK! I found myself slipping back in time to my teenage struggle not to abandon any faith in a God who could have allowed the Holocaust to happen. At the time, and over the subsequent years, I ultimately made peace with faith in a loving and just God by telling myself that the very love and justice that sustain the universe must allow nature’s operations to follow the eternal physical laws without divine meddling. There is literally no end to the horrors we may experience, but NONE OF THEM ARE GOD'S WILL! God suffers with us, weeps with us, holds us in loving embrace, sends us supportive friends and family, but does not take the bitter chalice from us any more than he allowed Jesus to escape the cross. Doing so would violate the natural order (which includes accidents, natural disasters, germs, the aging process, as well as human-to-human cruelties). To call floods, storms, and war “Acts of God” seems blasphemy to me.
When I checked my e-mail, still stunned from the tsunami disaster, I found a new note from Catherine and discovered that Leobard had a stroke on December 24 and was in the hospital with his mind intact but suffering from aphasia. Could this have been this the preconscious and proleptic reason for my frantic eagerness to build the website and get it done as quickly as possible? Had SOMETHING/ SOMEONE been quietly nudging us all along, insisting that I re-shuffle my priorities and Catherine tell Leo about the surprise weeks before his birthday? Were we being prepared for this very sequence of events, by the words of Bishop Bhai himself, words I had posted on the web a few days ago, words I had even sent back to him in a small note of appreciation for his work?
In Rabbi Kushner's oft-cited words: bad things happen to good people. The inability to accept this fact of life leaves idealist turned cynic Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov unable to share his devout brother's deep faith. Elie Wiesel who had to watch his father die in Buchenwald cries out: “Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.” In the most dreadful scene of that most dread-filled book, Night, Wiesel describes the death passion of a sweet, beautiful boy who was too small and light to die quickly, and slowly, ever so slowly strangled, hanging from the rope twisted around his thin neck. A man asked, “'Where is God now?'” Wiesel heard a voice within his consciousness: “Here he is-- He is hanging here on this gallows. . . .”We are reminded of Bernard Shaw's question in Saint Joan, “Must Christ be crucified in every generation . . .?” And yet, in the end, Wiesel did not yield to the temptation of nihilism and despair. His life, the very fact that he wrote this book and many more, is a testament to hope that lights the path through the darkest night, the affirmation of life that persists against common sense and scientific judgment.
When we focus on the presence of suffering and evil in the world, we may doubt either the existence of God or his love for us. Those who want to believe in God but see no evidence of his goodness and caring, often call themselves atheists to avoid having to consider God the power of evil. They do not doubt God's existence or his power as much as they doubt his love. In Jesus the Christ we find the answer to this ancient human cry. By becoming one of us and dying himself, God both affirmed the absolute necessity of suffering and death for mortal creatures and gave us a glimpse of another realm, one where love is stronger than death. He tilted the balance away from despair toward hope by calling us to follow him. This is the deepest meaning of Christmas and the Incarnation.
In “The Myth (Truth) of the Incarnation” Archbishop D’Souza wrote the perfect words to conclude this New Year’s meditation:
Remember that the first followers of Jesus expected his imminent return to lead them into a full life this side of death. They believed that because they were Jews and that was their tradition about the messiah. When that did not happen, they had to rethink. They came to the conclusion, especially with Luke’s insights, that what Jesus thought, taught, and wrought in his time and place, was to continue, with his help, in every time and place throughout the ages of life on earth. That was construed as the mission of the institution that would eventually come to bear Jesus’ name when it separated from its Jewish mother.
When the baby grows up, he will assure others, in John’s version of his life, that he has come that all might have life and have it in abundance. That is the reminder of Christmas and of the Incarnation. If we say we follow Jesus, then we must be committed to secure life in all its abundance for all of creation.
And the rub is that the securing of this abundant life is ours or it will never happen. It was Jesus who reminded us that we would do greater things than he himself had done. The question is, do we really believe that? Do we believe that God has no hands but ours, no heart but ours, no mind but ours, no ears but ours, no eyes but ours? If we do not see, listen to, and empower the poorest of our poor and be empowered by them, Christmas and the Incarnation mean nothing. If we do not work in our time and our place to end poverty of body, mind, and spirit, as Jesus did in his, do we understand that Christmas and Incarnation have no meaning?
Where is God now? God is all of us as we are being Christ for one another – those who suffer and those who do their best to alleviate suffering by loving, caring, and supporting. We are God’s hands, heart, mind, ears, and eyes, always but most especially when the night seems darkest and hope is no more than a distant flicker. It is up to us to keep the flame alive and to light the candle over and over again.
Thank you, Bishop Bhai for your words of gentle wisdom. Thank YOU for a life of being God’s hands, heart, mind, ears, and eyes, for being Christ for the world.
1 January 2005