December 23, 2007

They shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us’ – Mt 1: 23
Matthew seems to indicate that this is what Jesus is all about. God is present in our lives from beginning to end. Yet often we do not sense or believe that God is with us, & this is especially true in times of crisis. Anne Donovan contributed an article in a Sept., 1998 issue of America magazine entitled, “The Painful Effort to Believe,” & it is an account of the birth of her stillborn daughter. She was looking for someone who could help her in her struggle with the God issue. Instead, she writes
“In the weeks following Carly’s death, well-meaning friends & relatives called & sent hundreds of cards & letters offering helpless words of condolence. Most of their efforts said the same thing: “It was God’s will. We cannot understand God’s will.” Those words kept me up at night for months, spinning through my frantic mind, tying me up in philosophical knots.
I know they were trying to help, but every time the issue of God’s will sprang up, I was miserable. It got to the point where I couldn’t even numbly smile or nod any more when the phrase inevitably popped up. I just clenched my teeth to keep from saying something I’d regret.
I started to notice a distinct difference between most of the letters from our Christian friends & those from our Jewish friends. The letters of Jewish friends expressed a genuine exploration of the sense of injustice & pain that the news of Carly’s death stirred in them. They did not try to placate us with the idea that someday we would understand why this happened. They spoke from the heart, telling us only: ‘This is unfair, it is so painful, it is so tragic, we are thinking of you.’ We grew to treasure their honesty & their willingness to explore.”
Those who offered the standard pious thoughts were, in the end, of no help to someone struggling with faith, struggling to find God. Donovan comments:
“I have been told some remarkable things in the interest of consolation. I’ve been told to rejoice that my daughter went to heaven unmarked by sin, her soul clean & pure, perfect. That God has a special place reserved for her. I have been told that I should feel privileged: I have my very own baby angel, my own divine connection. To me, these are cartoonish images. They are about as comforting as imagining God as a robed elderly man with a long white beard, floating around on a cloud. These are images used to reassure a child, & they feel frozen in time.”
Anne Donovan rejects platitudes. In her ongoing grief she is searching, searching. This woman who lost her child & almost her faith, ends her long article with these plaintive words:
“Some may wonder why, after our experience, I still want to make the painful effort to believe. I can only respond that, despite my doubts, having seen the breathtaking perfection of my daughter’s peaceful face, it is impossible to think God was not there.”
So we come back to the Emmanuel of Matthew’s Gospel. Somehow in the darkness God is there, as St. John of the Cross so eloquently puts it in his description of the Dark Night of the Soul. A woman once asked a priest, “Where was God when my son died?” He responded, “The same place He was when His son died.” I had a man in one of my parishes who had been holding a grudge against God ever since his son had died 10 years before. Something I said in a talk (I know not what) apparently lanced the boil for him. He came to me afterwards, told me of his experience, & then said, “I don’t hate God anymore.”
Those of you who carry dark memories & heavy burdens, whose faith is weak, whose doubts are strong – remember Matthew’s message about Jesus. At this darkest time of the year, a light is shining in the darkness, even when our vision is too poor to see it. AMEN!