A few days before Christmas, I ran into a friend of mine at Mass and asked if she were ready for the holiday.
She bit her lip and bowed her head, tears spilling over her lashes. “My seven-month-old granddaughter is in the hospital,” she said, her voice rasping with grief. “We don’t know if she’s going to make it.”
Stunned, I wrapped my arms around her and promised to enlist everyone I could think of to pray for the child. I rummaged through my purse for a favorite prayer card and pressed it into her hand. On the drive home, I whispered anxious Hail Marys mixed with pleas for the baby’s healing.
Later, I saw another friend whose eyes, though dry, were clouded with sorrow.
“My wife isn’t doing well,” he said quietly. “The hospital bed was set up today in the living room. At least she can see the Christmas tree.”
Sitting in the choir loft at midnight Mass, I saw a fellow singer dabbing her cheeks with a tissue. “Don’t mind me,” she sniffed. “I had to put my cat to sleep today. He was with me for 16 years.”
At Christmas dinner, a friend admitted that a family member was wrestling with mental illness. A few blocks from our holiday table, candles marked the spot of a deadly car crash. Halfway across the state, an aunt was facing her first Christmas as a widow. Halfway across the world, millions endured relentless poverty, disease and violence.
And even though (after singing at four Christmas Masses) Scriptures and carols echoed within me, all I could think was: How could a newborn really heal such profound sorrow?
Could we kneel before the manger with no other gift than the tears of our heart, cried or uncried?
If we did just that, would we be sent away?
St. Leo the Great gives what at first seems rather a stern reply: “Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. … When the angels on high are so exultant at this marvelous work of God’s goodness, what joy should it not bring to the lowly hearts of men? … Christian, remember your dignity.”
Our wounds are deep, but Christmas isn’t a time to wrap them in a false cheer. That’s because the baby born in Bethlehem is the actually the most powerful being of all: the Son of God, armed with purest love and infinite power, and dangerous beyond all telling to the powers of darkness.
No matter how thoroughly the world tries to dilute the meaning of Christmas — casting it as a kind of goodwill ceasefire from hostilities — this Child is a conqueror, as St. Leo reminds us: “He came to overthrow the devil, the origin of death, in that very nature by which [Satan] had overthrown mankind.”
The battle commences almost immediately after Christ’s arrival: innocent children are slaughtered as Herod, and Satan, perceive their dethronement (Mt 2:16-18). The enemy labored to lure Jesus away from the final conflict, tempting him in the desert (Mt 4:1-11, Mk 1:12–13, Lk 4:1–13) and even using Peter to deflect him from his journey to the cross (Mt 16:21-23, Mk 8:31-33).
Tortured, reviled and crucified, Christ dried the tears of the world — not by “[offering] violence against violence, as he might have done, but [putting] an end to violence by transforming it into love,” as Pope Benedict XVI (writing as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) wrote.
The victory is complete: “Violence is defeated by love. This … is the true transformation which the world needs and which alone can redeem the world. … Death itself is transformed: love is stronger than death. It remains forever” (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “Eucharist, Communion and Solidarity”).
In a sense, Jesus himself was conceived in a teardrop — born “in the fullness of time” because we had fallen, taking flesh to wipe away with his crucified hands the tears of a heartbroken Father who longed to restore his people unto Himself.
The Christmas season may find us in sorrow, but it will not leave us there, if only we bring our tears to the manger, where a child awaits — with small but mighty hands — to clasp us to his heart forever.
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