David Chislett reflects on the suffering church
Priests who celebrate Mass every day experience the Octave of Christmas as a chilling reality for, while many of the people are enjoying a well-deserved holiday break with their families, we and a handful of stalwarts are back at the altar immersed in a gruesomely bloody week.
On the day after Christmas Day we honour Saint Stephen, the first Christian Martyr. One of the first deacons, full of the Holy Spirit and full of love for the people, he was stoned to death for his witness to Jesus. (And, of course, on ‘Boxing Day’ the popular carol makes it impossible for us to forget the tenth-century Duke Wenceslaus who went out ‘on the feast of Stephen,’ and was martyred by his own brother.) Then it’s on to the Feast of the Holy Innocents, for those little boys two years of age and under who were slaughtered by the deranged King Herod in his desperation to kill Jesus. I, personally, find it hard to stand at the altar on Holy Innocents’ Day and not hear the wails of the mothers, or see the blood running in the back streets of Bethlehem. Then we will celebrate Saint Thomas Becket, the tough-nosed twelfth-century ecclesiastical bureaucrat who became Archbishop of Canterbury, had a real conversion to the Lord, and was subsequently martyred in his cathedral.
All that suffering, anguish and pain! The one thing we mustn’t do is to think of it as something that contrasts with the essence of Christmas or interrupts it. For it is the real world that God is saving, redeeming and transforming. It is real people like you and me—sinful, selfish, flawed in character, full of complexes and contradictions—he wants to heal and restore. He loves us, sinful as we are, with all of our problems and our propensity to hurt one another. This baby, God in human flesh, came to reveal the love with which we have been loved for all eternity. That love cost him everything. ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’ (2 Cor. 8.9)
From one end of the Bible to the other, the tapestry of God’s revelation is held together by a bloodied thread. Let’s never forget that. Jesus came to this world, ultimately, to die and—in the words of the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar—not just to die, but to experience the hell of God-forsakenness, before being resurrected from the abyss and exalted to the right hand of the Father with and for us, transforming all things, you and me included, with his suffering love. This is the mystery at the heart of our salvation; this is the mystery at the heart of the Church. This is the mystery that can make such a difference to families, communities and even nations if only we will stop pushing God away.
The blood of this strange week flows down through the Christian centuries. Even in our day, the most astonishing signs of the presence of Jesus are in the midst of extreme suffering, where, in places like Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, parts of Nigeria, North Korea and China, our brothers and sisters in Christ routinely face vicious persecution and sometimes martyrdom. They are living out the experience of which Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
‘We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.’ (2 Cor. 6.8–10)
During this week, our emotions are stretched between the joy of the manger, the crib, the angels singing, memories of past Christmas celebrations going back to our childhood, family celebrations, when our own children were little… and on the other hand the sobbing, tears and pain, not just of the martyrs, but of their loved ones, and all who suffer illness, loneliness, forsakenness and even despair. As we look forward to a new year, may all church communities—and each of us in our daily lives—allow the Lord to use us to touch and bless the bloodied world into which he came that first Christmas. May we become better at proclaiming and living the gospel in our day.
Fr David Chislett SSC is the parish priest of All Saints’, Benhilton.