Christmas reflections

“If everyone were holy and handsome, with ‘alter Christus’ shining in neon lighting from them, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone. If Mary had appeared in Bethlehem clothed, as St. John says, with the sun, a crown of twelve stars on her head, and the moon under her feet, then people would have fought to make room for her. But it was not God’s way for her, nor is it Christ’s way for himself, now when he is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth…For he said that a glass of water given to a beggar was given to Him. He made heaven hinge on the way we act towards him in his disguise of commonplace, frail and ordinary human beings.”

The words above are from Dorothy Day, the 20th century American writer, activist, thinker and the founder of the Catholic Workers’ Movement. She wrote these words in December 1945 and her life and vocation served as a constant reminder to the Catholic Church of its primary mission, namely of reaching out to the neglected, including to those marginalized by the Church itself. It is difficult to not wonder how leaders in Hungary, where the term “Christian” is used so often for political purposes, reflect on the words of people like Dorothy Day, or perhaps a contemporary of hers, Simone Weil, or someone like Hungary’s very own János Pilinszky, or indeed Pope Francis today.

At its most basic level, Christmas carries a message that can be understood and appreciated by all – regardless of religion. At its core, Christmas tell us that everyone has intrinsic value and dignity. We are born with it, even when born into poverty or marginalization. And there is value and dignity in those too who we see as our adversaries or with whom we have had a disagreement or conflict. Over the course of Advent I was thinking how I might practice this concept in my own life. Near the beginning of this year, I ended up in a disagreement and conflict with a local Canadian priest. We are around the same age, but it appeared as though we saw the world around us and issues of the day in very different ways. And it is likely that this difference persists today. It was at the beginning of the year that I took strong exception to one of his homilies, more precisely to its ideological and political message. Over the course of the year, I saw him on a handful of occasions, though in each case these brief encounters were characterized by civilized, but cool reserve.

As the months passed and the memory and indeed significance of the disagreement faded for me, something increasingly entered my mind. There’s a good chance that this priest, who serves as the pastor of a small parish community, mostly receives feedback when someone has something critical to say or comes with a complaint. It’s quite possible that supportive words are less common. Christmas seemed like a good time to change this a little. I wrote him a Christmas card and included in the envelope a modest donation for his parish. I kept my words of greeting brief and opted with simple honesty, writing: “While I may not have always seen things the same way as you this past year, please know that your vocation and ministry as a priest, and the sacrifice that this entails, is very much appreciated.”

At Christmas our greatest challenge is to see the value and dignity in the other and in people who are different than ourselves. Sometimes, to our naked eyes, this value may be difficult to see. But it is there in abundance.

Merry Christmas and Chag Sameach to all of our readers!

Andrássy Boulevard in Budapest, at Christmas.

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