Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas: Mass at Midnight

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola
develops a method of prayer
that involves the imagining of a biblical scene,
and then locating ourselves within that scene
and observing what transpires and how if affects us.
With regard to the story of the nativity,
Ignatius begins by suggesting that we imagine Mary,
nine-moths pregnant and riding on a donkey,
journeying to Bethlehem with Joseph,
a servant girl
and an ox
to pay the tribute Caesar had imposed on the land.
He suggests we imagine the road:
is it level or hilly, smooth or rough?
He suggests we imagine the place where Christ is born:
is it big or small, high-ceilinged or low?
Then we are to imagine the people present:
Mary, Joseph, the servant girl,
and eventually the Christ child himself.
Finally, we place ourselves within that scene.
Ignatius writes:
"Making myself into a poor and unworthy servant,
I watch them, and contemplate them,
and as if I were present, serve them in their needs
with all possible respect and reverence; . . . .
notice and consider what they are saying. . . .
watch and consider what they are doing:
for example, their journeys and labors,
so that Christ comes to be born in extreme poverty
and, after so much toil, hunger, thirst, heat and cold,
insults and affronts, he dies on the cross —
and all of this for me.
Then I will reflect and draw some spiritual profit."

Ignatius offers us here a suggestion
for internalizing the events of the Christmas story,
and a way of realizing
that all of these things were done "for me."
Surely it would be worth our while if each of us
took 15 minutes or half an hour tomorrow,
amidst the presents and meals and family and friends,
to engage in this exercise in prayerful imagining.

But there is one point on which Ignatius
doesn’t offer us guidance:
when I place myself in the scene, who should I be?
He suggests that we take the role
of "a poor and unworthy servant,"
but doesn’t say which unworthy servant.
Are we to invent a persona for ourselves,
or should we inhabit one that is already in the scene?

My suggestion is this:
why not, this Christmas, imagine yourself as the donkey?
Now the donkey and the ox,
whom Ignatius imagines Mary and Joseph
bringing with them to Bethlehem,
are not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth.
They seem to have gotten imported into the scene
from the Old Testament:
a passage from the prophet Isaiah that says,
"An ox knows its owner,
and a donkey, its master’s manger" (Isaiah 1:3).
Perhaps it was this passage’s mention of the manger,
the food trough,
that led Christians to imagine
the ox and the donkey present
at the manger in which the infant Jesus is laid.
In any case, they have been inextricably incorporated
into the traditional scene,
and so I make my suggestion:
this Christmas, imagine yourself as the donkey.

St. Augustine loved the image of the Christian as the donkey:
both the donkey present at Christ’s birth
and the donkey that carried him
into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
He particularly loved this image
because the donkey is a beast of burden:
the donkey carries Christ
in his mother’s womb into Bethlehem,
the donkey carries Christ
in his mother’s arms on the flight into Egypt,
the donkey carries Christ
into Jerusalem, where he will meet his destiny
in cross and resurrection.

And this is the role of the Christian: to carry Christ.
St. Augustine writes, "Look at the manger:
do not be ashamed to be the Lord’s beast of burden. . .
Let the Lord sit upon us,
and let him direct us whither he will" (Serm. Ben. No. 189).

OK, imagining yourself as the donkey
is not particularly glamorous,
but then Christianity
is not a particularly glamorous undertaking.
Like the donkey,
we depend on our rider to guide us to our goal;
like the donkey,
we are pretty much in the dark
as to where our rider is guiding us;
like the donkey,
we sometimes grow weary
and even, on occasion, resentful and stubborn.

Indeed, it is sometimes during this season of joy
that this burden of faith weighs most heavily upon us.
I was reminded of this two days ago
when I heard from some neighbors
that they would be out of town attending the funeral
of the infant child of friends in New York.
I was reminded of this again yesterday
when I received an email from a student
telling me that her grandmother had just died and that,
while other people were planning Christmas celebrations,
her family would be planning a funeral.

The gift of new life that we see in the Christ child can be,
even in this season of joy,
shadowed by the sorrow of death and loss.
We may declare a holiday,
but the business of life and death goes on,
the journey continues.
Our Christmas faith is that in Christ
God shares in the business of life and death.
Even as you imagine yourself
in the joyful scene of Christ’s birth,
you know that it is your task to carry the one
who, as Ignatius put it,
suffers "toil, hunger, thirst, heat and cold,
insults and affronts," and ultimately death on a cross.

We look at the child in the manger and we ask ourselves,
can one who seems so small, so weak,
one who has shared so fully in human mortality,
really save me from death, really redeem my suffering?
And our faith answers, "yes."

And so, tonight, we donkeys stand at the manger,
ready to take up again the burden of faith’s "yes."
We only dimly understand
the great mystery taking place around us —
the mystery of God made flesh —
and we are perhaps frightened at the prospect
of taking that mystery upon ourselves.
And yet the burden of the mystery,
the burden of Christ,
the burden of faith,
is not in the end something we carry,
but something that carries us.
Christ takes upon himself our mortal nature
so that we might share in his immortality.
As Augustine writes:
"With him sitting upon us,
we shall not be burdened down, but raised up.
With him leading us, we shall not go astray.
We shall be going to him,
we shall be going through him,
we shall not perish."

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