The risk of Christmas

What Mother Teresa and Christmas have in common

John M. Fowler, Ed.D., is associate secretary in the General Conference Department of Education and a consulting editor for Ministry.

Close to a million people lined up on the winding roads of Calcutta to catch a glimpse of Mother Teresa's body on the way to its final resting place. The journey was emotional to some, spiritual to others, disturbing to a few, and a wonder to all. The wonder rose from the question "why."

Why was this frail little woman honored and mourned throughout the world? Why did the small and the great, the street dwellers and the statesmen, the agnostic and the religious take a bow to ward Calcutta? Was it because she became a legend in her own time and earned such titles as the "saint of the gutters," the mother of the dying, the friend of the lonely, the servant of the poor, and Nobel Laureate for peace?

I think not. These titles and honors do not impress me the most. What impresses me is the risk she took as a young girl when she left the safety of her home and friends in Albania to undertake a journey of faith and service to the unknown world of Calcutta. There she prospered, so to speak, as a teacher and then as the principal of St. Mary's Girls' School, a prestigious institution known for its academic excellence and upper echelons of society. But the young sojourner was not satisfied. Something was missing in her ministry, and she prayed and sought for what that was. And it was all the time before her eyes, and she had not seen it. But when prayer opens one's heart and eyes, the vision of what should be done conies rather easily.

She saw the vision--of the poor, of the dying, of the sick, of thousands in Calcutta's streets who live and die with out the basic dignity that the Creator has installed in and desires for every human being. So she started in a small way a home for the destitute. The home grew both in size and in love until it embraced scores of countries and thousands of people around the world. One of the first persons she carried to her home was a woman on a street corner a poor, destitute woman whose toes were already half eaten up by rodents. In the face of that suffering woman, she said, she saw the face of Christ. That changed her world. That became the philosophy of her service.

To see in every hurting human face the reflection of the suffering and the saving Jesus is what the mystery of Christmas is all about. After all, why did God have to incarnate Himself in the form of a help less baby? Why should that baby lie in a manger? Amidst the angelic chorus of glory to God and good will to humanity, why should there be the distant shadow of the cross?

To ask why is not given to us. To affirm it did is the good news and the challenge.

The good news

Christmas is good news that the Creator has stepped into human history in the most dynamic form imaginable to of fer to every human being the possibility of becoming what He wanted them to be at Creation. To restore in humans the image of their Maker, to bring them back to the perfection in which they were created, to break the bond of sin and suffering, and to open the kingdom of God to who ever will enter that's what Christmas is all about.

So when Jesus on His journey from Christmas to the cross healed a man blind from birth, transformed a woman shattered by the violations of Magdala, asked a lonely, helpless man at Bethesda to take up his bed and walk on a Sabbath day, changed the demoniacs to be ambassadors of God's redemptive grace, embraced the leper here and raised the dead there, and challenged a noted clergyman that he was of no use unless he was born again. Jesus thrust upon history the challenge of Christmas: it's time to see in every human face the image of God, marred, but transformable.

The challenge of Christmas

Christmas that mystery of identifying with the lowly, the suffering, the dying is not easy. Incarnational ministry involves risks of rejection, of loneliness, of being doubted, and ultimately of the cross. Without that mystery and without the readiness to accept that risk, Christ mas becomes just a festivity: indeed a pagan festivity that recognizes neither God nor humanity, but only self. The festivity is easy and can include everything and everyone. It has a Santa Claus, it sets up hot soup kitchens, it distributes food and fruit packages, and it gives toys. Each act, good as it may be, brings some happiness for a moment and like the dew of the morning vanishes a while later. The festivity has no permanency.

But Christmas is a permanent event: God with us, now and forever. When that permanency takes over us, we see God's face reflected in every hurting child of His creation. We may not be saints of the gutter or winners of Nobel Prizes, but we can certainly be risking whatever we have for the message and mission of Christmas: to bring glory to God and goodwill to men and women everywhere.

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John M. Fowler, Ed.D., is associate secretary in the General Conference Department of Education and a consulting editor for Ministry.

December 1997

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