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Brushstrokes Refugee Centre Christmas Reflection

The picture painted of the events we celebrate at Christmas is fairly sombre in tone to begin with. Mary is an object of suspicion and probably quite a lot of innuendo as it becomes clear she has become pregnant before marrying Joseph, and Joseph himself comes close to divorcing her. Then in the context of a land under brutal occupation by the Roman empire, a census is called and the heavily pregnant Mary has to make a long journey with Joseph to register. Tradition has it that she made the journey on a donkey – the transport of the poor at the time. Later, just after Jesus is born, all three will become refugees in Egypt, waiting for the moment it is safe for them to go back home again. When they finally arrive in Bethlehem, there is no room for them anywhere, nowhere which can offer them a welcome and Mary has to give birth in an animal shelter, she and Joseph and their baby cut off from the human support and warmth which is one of the things people need most at times of crisis. Yet it is precisely in these circumstances that Christians believe God enters into human existence, then and now. When we find ourselves in situations of pain, suffering and grief, looking to the future with fear and anxiety, it can seem hard to believe that God is in any way present in what we are going through. Yet the paradox remains that somehow when we are in the midst of suffering, light does seems to shine in ways that we didn’t expect. The kindness and solidarity of others, inner strength we didn’t know we had, the love we have for others that leads us to reach out to them in their suffering even when we are suffering ourselves all speak of a God who is present at the heart of things and who keeps us going forward when we feel, as Mary and Joseph must have felt on the way to Bethlehem, that we can’t go any further. In this way God is present not only to us but in us, and works through us to shine light in places where the darkness seems all consuming. Saint Teresa of Avila put this insight in the form of a poem in which she said ‘Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which he is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which he is to bless us now.’ The aspect of this poem that people often overlook is that our body is also the body of God – God is united to us at the heart of our being, and the life of God is like electricity that flows through us, moving us to reach out to others in love. The hand that we extend is both ours and God’s. So in the Christmas story, Joseph on the basis of his dream stays with Mary, the Shepherds (themselves outcasts of the society of the day) come to keep watch with Mary, Joseph and their son (tradition has it that they came with instruments to play to the newborn child), and the wise men who were foreigners and strangers follow a star that shines in the darkness and leads them to arrive with gifts. Teresa of Avila expresses it beautifully, but perhaps this year as we reflect on Christmas at Brushstrokes, a place where rivers of this divine-human love flow between people all the year round, the last word should go to a recently deceased prophet of our own day. So, in the words of Leonard Cohen, ‘Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering; There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’ Happy Christmas!

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