Compassion & Love
A world ruled by compassion and love, a world in which the reign of Christ invites the Church to direct itself towards practices of welcome and hospitality, rituals of peace, and lives of mercy and compassion.
Almost 20 years ago this fall, I was one of nearly thirty Peace Corps Volunteers that arrived in a place very strange and alien to us to begin two months of training in preparation for two years of service. I came to know Lesotho as my home and her people as my community; but in those first days and weeks, home seemed very far away and community a very elusive thing indeed.
Thanksgiving came and went quickly and Christmas approached. Most of us had never been away from home at Christmas. People grieved the separation from family and friends. Someone asked about a Christmas Eve service. A local Catholic priest was found and about 20 of us gathered in a small chapel at the local health clinic for the 10:00pm service.
But it was Lesotho and time is flexible; and the priest seemed content to arrive in his own time, which turned out to be 11:15pm.
I don’t recall a thing about the service; but that the hour that we sat waiting for the priest made that Christmas something unforgettable. We sat in small groups; or alone. In silence or in hushed conversation, we waited. There was a little laughter, at the absurdity of sitting there not really sure what exactly we were waiting for. There were some tears as well. In the middle of a period of silence, there was a heaving sob, a release of anguish and longing; and then silence again.
The priest arrived. We had the service. We lit candles and walked back with them through the darkness. Friends of mine who have not darkened the door of a church since that night remember that service with something approaching mystical reverence and awe. And there was nothing especially memorable about it, except that we were together. And being together seemed to be what mattered more than anything else.
It is a precious and delicate thing, Christmas. Consumed though we can sometimes be by the need to clean, shop, cook – perfect, we can forget that at its most essential Christmas reminds us that a child born in a stable incarnates something about God’s deep desire to in our company. And in response, we should simply rejoice in being in company together, despite the tumult swirling around us.
The Church takes many forms as well; and it is also a wonderfully delicate thing. A congregation can endure for centuries, unchanged and unchanging in its patterns and habits, its life of ritual and practice a source of deep comfort and continuity for generations of worshippers.
The church can also form and live out its life in an hour; opening a brief win-dow of time for God to be present and meet the longing and hope of a small gathering that scatters as the last note of the last hymn is sung.
In whatever form it takes, the Church that claims Jesus Christ as its head is drawn into God’s longing and hope for the life of creation. It is drawn into a sense of community that invites a spirit of selfless commitment; a devotion to something very different from the culture out of which we come to worship.
In Luke’s gospel, the divine vision comes to us as a longing for a world ruled by compassion and love, a world in which the reign of Christ invites the Church to direct itself towards practices of welcome and hospitality, rituals of peace, and lives of mercy and compassion.