I sometimes wonder about my reading and viewing choices during the holidays, and how out of sync they are with the mood of the season.
What drew me to pick up the book The Last Monk of Tibhirine by Freddy Derwahl and ask for, receive as a gift, and subsequently view on Christmas evening Of Gods and Men, the film based on the martyrdom of the seven monks, eludes me. I am happily out of sync with popular culture as well, and when the movie made a big splash at Cannes in 2010, I was elbow deep in changing diapers and growing my family. No time to get to the movies.
However, I have always been fascinated by Christian monasticism, particularly as practiced by the Trappist monks, so when the story surfaced of monks who set up their monastery in the heart of a Muslim community in Algiers, to spread the gospel by service to the poor and suffering, and who were then abducted by an Islamic terrorist group and brutally killed, I wanted to know more of their story.
But is this sad story meant for the holiday season?
That question was on my mind even as I watched the film, its slow, meditative pace reminiscent of the documentary Into Great Silence (there’s something about putting monks on film that demands everything slow down).
Then came Brother Christian’s words on the Incarnation. The very celebration we are in the midst of this week.
The monks are faced with the conundrum of abandoning the community and their monastery for their own safety, or staying and suffering with, even to the point of death, the poor Muslim community they serve. Many heartfelt, agonizing meditations and conversations are dwelt on regarding this matter- it is the primary drive of the narrative. Brother Christian’s mind is already made up- he is staying. To offer some reason for this, he offers this reflection on the Incarnation to his fellow monk, Brother Luc:
I’ve often thought of that time. That time when Sayah Attia and his men left.
Once they were gone, all we had left to do was to live.
And the first thing we did was… two hours later.
We celebrated the Christmas Vigil and Mass.
It’s what we had to do. It’s what we did.
And we sang the Mass. We welcomed that Child
who was born for us absolutely helpless and…
and already so threatened.
Afterwards, we found salvation in undertaking our daily tasks.
The kitchen, the garden, the prayers, the bells.
Day after day.
We had to resist the violence.
And day after day, I…. I think each of us discovered
that to which Jesus Christ beckons us.
It’s … to be born.
Our identities as men go from one birth to another.
And from birth to birth, we’ll each end up
bringing to the world the child of God that we are.
The Incarnation, for us, is to allow the filial reality of Jesus
to embody itself in our humanity.
The mystery of Incarnation remains what we are going to live.
In this way what we’ve already lived here
takes root as well as…
what we’re going to live in the future.
(excerpted from the film Of Gods and Men and Christopher Page’s blog In a Spacious Place)
We must, as brothers and sisters in Christ, be willing to be born anew each day, and to see that birth in others as well. As Christians we are literally “little Christs” and the Incarnation thus rests in us as well. And as Jesus said in Matthew 25:
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Therefore, Christ is within the eyes of those we meet each day as well. He surrounds us, binds us with His love, and our duty is to show that to others. To have it “embody itself in our humanity.”
…even to the point of death, whether that means facing it ourselves, grieving with others through it, or standing up against it when injustice rears its head.
Bring to the world who you are as a child of God, as He brought Himself.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
I feel bad for the shepherds in the Gospel of Luke sometimes. Really.
Everyone prior to this…Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, and even Joseph (better late than never!) get SOME indication that a thing extraordinary will happen in the near future with the birth of Mary’s son, Jesus, the Son of the Most High, the “great joy for all people.”
It is kind of sprung on the shepherds, though, isn’t it?
No WONDER they were terrified.
The birth of the Messiah is announced. When did it happen, angels?
Today! and He is over THERE! And now we are going to light up the sky and sing like there is no tomorrow!
I wonder if the sheep even stuck around with all that going on.
And what was a shepherd, anyway? Certainly not anyone high up in society. I’ve heard of descriptions that call them “rag-tag and a bit grimy.”
Rag-tag and a bit grimy. Sounds a bit like my ever wandering soul sometimes.
And to this rag-tag and grimy crew the very chorus of heaven shows up and points them to the Savior of the world. “I bring you news that will cause great joy for all people.”
Not just the have-it-all-together crew.
The shepherds as well, who, just as the Wise Men did, followed a star to a manger and saw Jesus, the gift to us all.
It has been a while since I have posted, but that time has not been wasted. I’m in recovery, my friends. I’ve been led to a Christ-centered recovery group that takes on all manner of addictions and issues, those specifically shaped sins of ours that need the utter and complete mercy of God. My recovery is going well, with of course a few stumbles on the way. This recovery takes place amidst a growing family (the twins are due in a month!), a growing young boy, master classes in literary studies, and my own teaching responsibilities. And each week as I sit with my group of Christian brothers, either in sadness or joy, the reminder is given to me that I am His work, that I have a role in this great Story He is telling. I am learning to be myself, in Him. Massively challenging at times, and at others a simple warm embracing of realization. Like a shepherd, I am a bit rag-tag and grimy. But the good Lord send Him in the form of babe to change the world. And me. And you.
May God bless each and every one of you this Christmas, now and every day.