The Hard Hope of Christmas

Rabbi Daniel Lapin has observed that God commands things we don't naturally want to do, not things we naturally desire. The Ten Commandments don't bid us to eat three square meals a day, or remind us to obey the law of gravity or to kiss the man or woman we love. We can do those things fine without a commandment goading us along.

Commandments are to remind us of what we need to do when all our desires go the other way. It's when you are at the store, and there's nobody around, and that CD you've been dying for is right there, and you don't have the money, and a little voice tells you that the store owners are rich people who'd never miss it anyway, and everybody else shoplifts, and besides, you'll give the money you would have spent on the CD to charity... it's when all these things make stealing look so good, natural and normal that the commandment steps in and reminds us, "Thou shalt not steal."

Dittos for "Honor your Father and your Mother", even when they drive you nuts. Even when they let you down, big time.

I've been thinking about that as we head toward Christmas and round out this none-too-banner year for our big American Catholic family. Indeed, it has not been a great couple of years for American Catholics. For Americans, the Millennium was kicked off in September 2001 with the single greatest act of war ever perpetrated by a foreign enemy on American soil. Images were branded into the minds of a generation of Americans that equal any horror that's ever befallen us. We carry a wound--and a fear--that has changed us.

To be sure, history doesn't stop there, and we have begun to "move on" as the therapists say. But we walk with a limp now, always more attentive to what might be over our shoulder. We snigger a bit at silly headlines like "Terror Threat Lowered to 'Elevated'" but still, we can remember a time not so long ago when there was no such thing as "terror alerts" or a Homeland Security Department to administer them. We can remember September 10, 2001 and all that we lost the next day.

But American Catholics have lost even more. We've lost much of the sense of confidence we once had in our clergy. We've seen priests rape kids (bad enough) and some bishops cover this up, re-shuffle them, plea bargain to avoid jail, and engage in cowardly and sinful acts (including, in some cases, abuse of children themselves).

Yeah, it's been a terrible couple of double whammy years for us American Catholics. Just when we children of God needed the solace of the Church and the love of our spiritual fathers in Christ, the bishops, we found that solace taken from us and replaced with lawsuits, ugly headlines, and some bishops whose attitude toward their flocks was summed up in the appalling response Bishop Joseph Imesch gave when a lawyer questioned him in 1995 about bringing in a priest who had been convicted of molesting an altar boy in Michigan. "If you had a child," the lawyer recalled asking the bishop during the deposition for a civil suit, "wouldn't you be concerned that the priest they were saying Mass with had been convicted of sexually molesting children?" Replied Imesch, "I don't have any children."

Could anything hurt a suffering Catholic more than having your spiritual father say, "I don't have any children"?

Actually, yes. There is something that could hurt more: believing that lie. For whatever a particular bishop may think about his office, the reality remains that each bishop has as many children as he has members of his diocese. And even if a bishop forgets it, we must never forget it. We must go on obeying the command to "Honor your Father " even, and perhaps especially, when it looks perfectly normal and natural to say, "If he doesn't honor me, I won't honor him.".

The gospel challenges us that it is precisely at such times of pain and betrayal by men that the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity are needed. Faith, at bottom, means "You stay." You don't bug out because it's too hard. You stick around. You trust that God ensures the integrity of the gospel and honors your faithfulness even if human beings don't. That doesn't mean pretending things are fine, or that the American episcopacy has always and everywhere been a shining example of stainless holiness. It means... pretty much what we mean by being a family.

That's the hard hope of Christmas. Jesus was not born into the world because the world deserved him. He was born into the world because the world deserved hell. He came, not when we were at our peak, but when things were darkest. A violent world, a corrupt clergy, a people who were like sheep without shepherds--this was the world into which the Child was born. He didn't do it because we were faithful, but because we were faithless, betrayed and betraying. And now that he's come and suffered the worst at our hands, he's risen and ascended to take away our sin and fear so that we too can be faithful in the midst of a wounded world and a faithless generation. That's not easy, but it's where life is because that's where Jesus is. And, as Christmas attests, it's ultimately where joy is. This Christmas, stay with the family of God, as Christ does.

Copyright 2003 - Mark P. Shea