While on a break from my studies at the Gregorian University, I was once able to take a retreat in Greccio, Italy, the famed site where St. Francis is believed to have created the first nativity scene. It was there, at the urging of a spiritual director, that I employed imaginative prayer in order to experience taking the Christ-child into my own arms and see how I would take care of him. Putting myself in that stable scene, nervously holding this newborn boy, I found myself wondering if the baby Jesus was hungry or thirsty, or maybe just needed to rest. How overwhelming it was to realize that God-made-man, Emmanuel, could be relying on my own efforts to nurture and protect his own body, vulnerable and defenseless.
As I reflect on my ministry as a Catholic priest, I sometimes experience a similar anxiety in the face of a task that can seem overwhelming; the task of working to nurture and protect the body of Christ that is his Church. In our current state of crisis in the United States of America and beyond, I am conscious of the great wounds in the souls of faithful men and women, wounds often caused by clergy, whom they trusted. I am aware of the tears and anger, not merely toward priests, but often primarily caused by ecclesiastical robes of all colors. I struggle to find words in the face of cold farewells to Christ and his Church, farewells which surely cannot be blamed on the victimized and tortured, but rather on those who did this to them.
In the midst of this darkness, just like the darkness on that cold winter night so many centuries ago, a light is born, which will not be overcome. It is the light of hope brought by the baby boy of Bethlehem. But this baby boy, personified in the faces of the children in our parishes, our homes, and our Catholic schools, looks to you and me for nurture and protection.
Hope is a complicated thing. A beautiful insight, attributed to St. Augustine, reminds us that hope has two daughters, anger and courage: anger at the way things are and the courage to ensure that they change. Surely, we can work to guarantee the freedom to express honest and just anger at the betrayal of church leaders. In the face of this anger, we can work with courage to ensure that those systems of corruption and injustice that once protected the perpetrators will not remain unchanged.
What remains with me after this Christmas season is a recognition of the great gift of hope in the person of the baby Jesus. This hope is marked by a determination to accept the momentous task of nurturing and protecting the body of Christ himself, personified most of all in the faces of our children.
Author: Rev. Michael W. Bissex, associate pastor at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, Huntington, N.Y.
Photo credit: Anna Barton