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How Can This Christmas Be Different for Us and for Our Children?

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 12/02/14

Celebrating the compassion of God

You know how nearly everyone complains about the stress and anxiety associated with “the holidays”? Let’s talk about that—because I think it doesn’t have to be that way.

In my last column, I wrote about how the start of Advent started my pre-Christmas gloom—a gloom driven by notorious and feral commercialism epitomized by Black Friday, as well as by poignant laments for losing Christ at Christmas, especially those penned by Kahlil Gibran and Umberto Eco. God intends better for us than this; the Church offers us better than this; we can do better than this. How? I ended my last column by claiming that the key to breaking free of miserable and scandalous Christmas “celebrations” is a proper understanding of the word “compassion.” I would like to propose that Christmas, properly understood, may and should become a celebration of the compassion of God. To get there, we have to first address some unfortunate misunderstandings of the word “compassion.”

My beloved philosophical mentor, Paul Weiss, warned against confusing divinely inspired compassion with mere pity or sentiment. In his penetrating and beautiful examination of religion, The God We Seek, he builds upon the distinction between compassion and pity:

“Compassion has often been understood as a kind of pity for the unfortunate; taken in this sense it is distinguishable from true religious love or charity. Complete compassion involves a mutuality of sensitivity. Each is aware of the defects and failures and sufferings of the other. Each orients himself in that other and does this because that other is grasped as one whose proper destiny lies outside the area where the suffering occurs. The solidification of mutually compassionate beings is the production of a unity which is oriented toward God because each of the beings approaches the other as one who is to be translated, lifted out of the situation where the suffering occurs, and dealt with as one whose true nature and career is to be understood in new terms.”

He adds that to be compassionate is, “…a giving up of one’s own perspective and interests for the love of God, in order to enter into the perspective of another as already loved by God.” In other words, to be truly compassionate (note the Latin root cumpassio, “to suffer with”) one must enter the dark place of the sufferer, and insist that he has an identity, a dignity and a destiny that is not comprehended by this present darkness. Compassion calls the sufferer out of that darkness, and offers to accompany and escort him along the pilgrim’s path of healing, which is the route to the home of our Heavenly Father. Let’s keep that in mind while we look at what Saint Ignatius Loyola writes in his Spiritual Exercises.

His contemplation on the Incarnation begins with three “preludes.”  In the first prelude, one calls to mind the Divine Persons looking upon the whole earth and its inhabitants: “They see that all were going into hell, and They decreed, in Their eternity, that the Second Person should become man to save the human race. When the fullness of time had come, They sent the Angel Gabriel to our Lady.” This illustrates what Weiss wrote about compassion. The Holy Trinity, in the Person of the Son, enters into the world of lost humanity to become a man, for the love of God, so that the suffering of man might not have the final say about the destiny of man.

The second prelude calls to mind Galilee, Nazareth, and the home of our Lady. The third prelude is essential:  “…to ask for what I desire. Here I will ask for an intimate knowledge of our Lord, who has become man for me, that I may love and follow Him better.” In other words, the proper first fruit of a celebration of Christmas is intimate knowledge and love of Jesus, Who for the sake of love for us, entered our falleness and assumed our finite and wounded condition, so that we might know, love and follow Him to our Father’s house.

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