Fr Paolo Consonni, MCCJ
Changes often catch us unprepared. Here in Macau, till a few weeks ago, we were still living in a safe, Covid-free bubble with strict regulations to enforce it. True, everybody was complaining about the economic slump caused by years of being secluded from the rest of the world but, all in all, we felt secure and protected.
In a matter of days, everything changed. All of a sudden, the bubble burst, as the government eased most of the pandemic restrictions regarding quarantine, health-code controls and public gatherings. The sense of liberation from the Covid restrictions, now, goes hand-in-hand with the scary realization that we face this “new normal” armed only with an anti-pandemic package comprising a few meds, masks and test-kits. The feeling of security has been suddenly replaced with a sense of vulnerability: without restrictions in this city, which is among the most densely populated in the world, many citizens will be infected.
It’s a huge psychological shift: from trying hard to avoid danger to accepting the fact that we must face it. This year’s Christmas will witness the ambivalent feelings of this shift: joy but also fear.
If you think about it, Jesus’ birth was not a totally peaceful event either. The journey to Bethlehem to register in the census during Mary’s advanced pregnancy. The anxiety of not finding room in the inn just when the time of delivery arrived. The hurry to provide a place for the Infant Jesus by the makeshift use of a manger as a crib. If there is someone who well understands what it means to step out of a “safety bubble”, it is the Son of God Himself, who left the glorious perfection of the Trinity to become the Emmanuel, “God with us”, in a truly dangerous world.
There is a deep, universal meaning in the story of Jesus’ birth happening in the midst of these unsettling events. God comes to meet us where we are, in our individual and collective circumstances, in the uncertainties and complexity which are always part and parcel of our human condition. We would expect to be worthy to experience God’s presence and grace only when everything is morally in order, our problems solved and our contradictions settled. God comes instead in the messiness of the “here and now” of our existence.
Our daily life is the manger where He invites us to welcome Him. It’s not so difficult. Over the past few days, I felt His presence and action through a caring nurse at the health center; in a mother’s efforts to discern the best way to relate with her young children; in the generosity of many people volunteering their time and resources to help others; I felt Him in my tired body during the night prayer, and in the thirst for God in those who, in spite of the late hour, are praying together with me. I even feel His presence right now in my struggle to find words for this article.
In the manger of our daily life, turned a welcoming crib, God’s presence is no more an abstract experience reserved only to few mystics, philosophers or clerics. As it became visible to all in the fragile flesh of a small and powerless child, so it can be seen today in the acts of faith, love and charity expressed though the concreteness of choices, gestures, interactions, and attitudes. They are imperfect, as is everything human, yet, because of the Incarnation, they are sacred, namely capable of expressing God’s presence and love.
This special period “out of the bubble” is then the perfect time to contemplate Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem. All the problems which are affecting the world or our personal lives are not an obstacle that prevents us from experiencing God’s coming, but the occasion to enter deeper into the Mystery of the Incarnation and make it become more personal, more relevant to our lives. As a matter of fact, the challenges of our times provoke a personal and free answer to God’s invitation to adore Him not only in the liturgy, but also through the concrete choices and actions we make every day.
The ending of the Covid-free safety bubble might also be a signal that it’s time for a further “stepping out” in other aspects of our life too. True love always requires the risk of leaving a safety zone behind. It’s a bit scary, because it exposes our vulnerabilities. Let’s contemplate baby Jesus in the manger and be inspired to make our lives a gift for others, our families, our parishes and communities, as well as the society in which we live with generosity and courage. His tenderness will overcome our fears… Merry Christmas!