Hope Amidst a 'Pandemic Christmas'
I begin my Christmas 2020 reflection with the first four verses of the poem, Esperanza, by Alexis Valdés, a Cuban-American poet based in Miami, Florida.
When the storm passes
and the roads are tamed,
and we are the survivors
of a collective shipwreck.
With a weeping heart
and a blessed destiny
we will feel happy
just for being alive.
And we will hug
the first stranger
and praise the luck
of not having lost a friend.
And then we'll remember
everything we lost
And all at once we will learn
all we had not learned before…
These verses appear in the latest book attributed to Pope Francis titled, Let us Dream: The Path to A Better Future. The book is a written edition of Pope Francis’ conversation with the British journalist Austen Ivereigh, who is Pope Francis’ personal commentator and biographer. The book is inspired by Pope Francis’ thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic and the way in which it has both impacted the world and human lives. The book reiterates many of the point that Pope Francis makes in his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti.
Perhaps many of you remember seeing the very poignant picture of Pope Francis hold up the monstrance and blessing a deserted St. Peter’s square. As the coronavirus began to take its toll, typical of Pope Francis, he turned his attention towards the most vulnerable of peoples - those isolated in their homes, those stuck in nursing homes, the poor left without sustenance, the helpless migrants, and the elderly, many of them who died alone. More significantly, the pain, the fear, and the loneliness of others, reminded Pope Francis of his own experience of a raspatory illness that almost killed him when he was twenty-one-year-old. He was only in the second year of his seminary training. A surgery removed the upper right lobe of his lungs and he found himself on a ventilator literally fighting for life. He had to be isolated and experienced months of loneliness, fear, and pain. He recalls how one day he hugged his mother and asked, “Just tell me if I’m going to die.” This experience, which he calls his first of three “Covids,” became a life-changing experience.
Let us Dream revolves around hope – a hope that emerges from human beings recognizing the issues that create tragedies like a pandemic and setting out to create a better future. After all, this is the Christmas story, is it not? God sent his Son, Jesus, into a tragic, broken, sinful, and loveless world to embrace it and create a better future.
This ‘pandemic Christmas,’ I found no better way to reflect on Christmas, the feast of our redemption, than use Pope Francis’ reflections in Let us Dream. He has three points/chapters: A ‘Time to See’, ‘A Time to Choose’, and ‘A Time to Act’. In my homily, I would like draw on each these themes.
A Time to See. Pope Francis begins this chapter by contrasting how we might see the world from the way in which God sees the world. Many of us want to view the world from centerstage, from the perspective of the rich, the powerful, and the populists. Rather, Pope Francis says, “You have to go to the edges of existence if you want to see the world as it is… You have to make for the margins to find a new future. When God wanted to regenerate creation, He chose to go to the margins—to places of sin and misery, of exclusion and suffering, of illness and solitude—because they were also places full of possibilities." In these words, Pope invites us to see the world as God would see - from the peripheries.
From the peripheries, the world looks different. Here we get to experience the inequalities, the violence, the suffering, the misery, and the injustices. As we view the world from the periphery, Pope Francis says, either we can come to grips with it or try to escape reality. He lays out three ways in which we can escape reality – narcissism, discouragement, and pessimism. We can also give into, what Pope Francis calls, “existential myopia,” i.e., “holding on to something we’re afraid to let go.” Pope Francis contrasts this with God’s involvement in human history. “God is never indifferent”, Pope Francis says, but rather, “the essence of God is mercy, which is not just seeing and being moved, but responding. God knows, feels, and comes running out to look for us!” This precisely is the Christmas story, is it not?
Christmas reveals a God of the peripheries. Jesus was born on the periphery, his family had to flee to the peripheries, he was baptized on the periphery, he ministered on the periphery, he ate and drank with people on the periphery, and was put to death on the periphery. It’s the story that changed the course of human history. Like God, who is never indifferent but rather gets involved in human history, Pope Francis invites us not to be indifferent, but rather, like God, to see and be moved, to know and to feel, and to act from and at the peripheries – the place of possibilities. This is the path to a better future.
A Time to Choose. The Christmas story in replete with choices. God chose Mary. Mary chose God. Joseph chose to still take Mary as his wife. God chose to send Jesus. Jesus chose to become the Word made flesh. Pope Francis suggests that between the first step, “A Time to See” and the final step, “A Time to Act,” there is a middle step – “A Time to Choose.” Pope Francis suggests a robust set of criteria to guide us in this second step. The criteria include points such as: knowing that we are loved by God; that we are called by God to be a people in service and solidarity; and to have a healthy capacity for silent reflection. Most of all, he says we need prayer and the capacity to hear the promptings of the Spirit and cultivate dialogue in the community that can hold us and allow us to dream."
Pope Francis dedicates many pages to decry what ails our society, and they are many. It is impossible to deal with them in a Christmas Mass homily. But this time of challenges, Pope Francis says, is also the precise moment that humanity must choose a different future. And for this, he says, we need to choose fraternity over individualism. By this he means that we need to have a sense of belonging to each other and to the whole of humanity, “to come together and work together against a shared horizon of possibility." The one who opens this possibility is a little child, whom we welcome in our midst as the Savior of the world. He is the Savior of the world and not just of one nation, or one race, or one group of people.
The Christmas miracle is a global event! And now, another miracle, another possibility lies open before us. If there is anything that the pandemic has taught us it is this- that we are all in it together; and if humanity must recover, it will only be if we come together. Similarly, salvation is God’s global endeavor. This is the moment to set aside individualism, narcissism, discouragement, pessimism, and existential myopia. This is the moment when we choose to work together for a better future. The Christmas event demands this of us.
A Time to Act. Pope Francis begins his third chapter with these words, “In times of crisis and tribulation, when we are shaken our of our sclerotic habits, the love of God comes out to purify us, to remind us that we are a people.” Christmas tells us that God’s love is action! The birth of Christ is an act that makes us a people; an act that gives the human race its dignity. The Christmas miracle is a celebration of the love of God that embraces us, purifies us, and make us a people.
Pope Francis’ reflection on “the people” is truly a fabulous section in the book. The crux of this chapter is that Pope Francis invites us to assign every human person and peoples the dignity that is theirs. He points out the 30-40 unborn lives set aside each year. He points out the still existent slavery and the death penalty, the rampant exploitation of men, women, and children as we sacrifice them at the altar of power, pleasure, and profit. The main problem Pope Francis points out to is the fact that we refuse to give the dignity that God assigns to every human person.
Let me bring this point to a conclusion by zeroing in on the all-critical emphasis on the dignity of every human person. While we believe that our human dignity comes from being created in the image and likeness of God, the reality that at Christmas God became human adds immensely to that original dignity. And especially because Christ came among us as a baby, as one for whom there was no room, as a humble, poor, and powerfulness child stripped of fame, glory, and majesty, we cannot compromise the dignity of any human being, especially the most vulnerable and on the peripheries. The better future that Pope Francis refers to relies on every human person being treated with the dignity that Christ gave humanity by taking on human flesh. It is time to act in this way, for if we do not, not only will our Christmas celebration be empty and superficial, but we will totally miss Christ. After all, Christ is the God of the peripheries.
Let me conclude the final two verses of Alexis Valdés’, Esperanza. When we have put the pandemic behind us, Valdés says:
We will understand how fragile
it means to be alive.
We will sweat empathy
for who is and who has left.
We will miss the old man
asking for a dollar in the market
we didn't know his name
although he was next to us
And perhaps the poor old man
was your God in disguise.
You never asked for his name
because you were in a hurry.
And everything will be a miracle
And everything will be legacy.
And life will be respected,
the life we have won.
When the storm passes
I ask God, full of sadness
to return us to be better
as he had dreamed we would be.