Paulist seminarian Tom Gibbons reflects on his formation experience and his life as a seminarian right now. Along the way, some questions will be will be answered, and a lot more will come up.
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A Long Time Ago in a Christmas Far, Far, Away…
My wonderful five-year-old nephew has been asking questions about a certain topic the past few months. He has been talking with all of these boys at school and my sister—his mother—decided that he was ready. And I have to say that I am flattered that both her and her husband decided that I would be the best person to shepherd him across this very important Rite of Passage. And so this Christmas break, I will be introducing my nephew to the Star Wars movies.
This is not a responsibility I take lightly. There are many questions. For example, do I start like I started, with original Star Wars (now known as “Episode 4”)… or do I start him with the prequels? If I do start him with the original trilogy, do I show him the Special Editions or do get the original versions? You know, the one where Gredo doesn’t shoot first? Do I try to avoid the whole Jar Jar Binks thing? I know that I’m only talking to about half of the people out there right now but these are tough questions. It’s during these moments that I really empathize with all of the parents out there and the hard decisions you all have to make.
“A long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away.” “Once upon a time.” “Twas a long time ago, longer now than it seems, in a place that you’ve seen perhaps in your dreams.” These are all phrases that that begin myths. Myths are stories that speak to the condition of our soul, that seek to enlighten our spiritual lives, and communicate some truth that we might not be able to grasp otherwise.
Of course, there’s a certain abstract nature to myths. We don’t specifically know when and where they take place… and it’s not necessarily important to the spiritual truths that the myths are trying to express. In fact, it’s abstract nature of myths helps add to the universal nature of the story. That being said, because of their abstract nature, sometimes myths can leave the impression that the spiritual truths being expressed do not necessarily apply to this world, to our time, and to our place.
But it is for that very reason why the first verse of today’s reading is so important… because the birth of Christ is tied not to some abstract time and not to some abstract plcae. As Luke writes, “Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken. This census – the first – took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and everyone went to his own town to be registered.”
Caesar Augustus… Quirinius… these were real people from real places… and what Luke wants us to know is that Jesus was born in a real time and a real place. Our time. That no matter how much God might seem to be otherworldly, to be an abstract ideas, Jesus Christ is truly Emanuel… “God with us.” As Isaiah proclaimed, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” And that is not only Good News… that is great news.
Because we have all had times in our lives when we have walked in darkness. At some point in our lives, we experience the grave illness of either ourselves or a loved one, whether they be physical, mental, emotional… or all three. Many now are struggling in this economic climate or know somebody who is. And almost all of us still feel some sort of sting from the memory of family relationships and friendships gone wrong. And in the midst of all of those struggles and more, it can be very easy to feel alone.
Most can identify with the shepherds in the fields. People who spend most of their days just going about our business, keeping their heads and just focusing on the very next thing because that’s often what it takes to survive in this world. And while on the outside they are busy, on the inside they are waiting… wait for healing, waiting for direction, waiting to say with confidence, “We are not alone!” But in the midst of that waiting, it can be easy to wonder if deliverance will ever come. It can be easy to wonder if we are alone in the universe. It can be easy to wonder if we indeed have an indifferent God, one who simply winds the clock and leaves us all here to fend for ourselves.
But Christmas is the day that we remember that deliverance has not already come but continues to come. As many of you know, I belong to a religious community known as the Paulist Fathers; our founder, Isaac Hecker, was once quoted as saying, “If Christ is to be for us a Savior, we must find him here, now and where we are… in THIS age of ours also. Otherwise, he is no Christ, no Savior, no Emmanuel, no ‘God is with us.’” What we Christians celebrate —in addition to the family, in addition to the warm childhood memories, in addition to the festive atmosphere—is that in that large question as to whether we live in a good world or a bad world, whether we have a loving God or an indifferent Deity, whether or not the forces of light or the forces of darkness will have the final say, is that God has given us the ultimate tiebreaker with Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, “God with us.” And this is not only Good News for us as individuals, but for all of us.
So this particular holiday season—whether the season involves joyous reunions or painful disagreements, wonderful celebrations or moments of loneliness, idyllic sleigh rides or rush hour traffic—let us thank God for the true story of Jesus. Let us thank God for Emmanuel, “God with us.” And let us thank God for coming to our world and to our time… and not to a galaxy far, far away.