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In Edmonton, significant progress has made been in eliminating homelessness. The WCR's last issue reported that since the city began its Ten-Year-Plan to End Homelessness five years ago, more than 3,200 formerly homeless people have been housed and 84 per cent of those people have successfully retained their housing. As well, in the first several years of the initiative, the number using overnight shelters declined, a situation that has changed this year due to the large influx of people seeking jobs here. The success of the Edmonton initiative shows that, while eliminating homelessness may be impossible, genuine progress in overcoming seemingly intractable social problems can be made if a community forms the will to do so.
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Christmas is the joyous celebration of the Son of God's incarnation as a human person who walked in our midst and brought salvation. Our contemporary celebrations of Christmas, ever more ridiculous with each passing year, obscure the meaning of this great feast behind a curtain of gift-giving, parties, turkey dinners and family visits. None of these things is bad in itself; indeed, each is typically good and salutary. Yet, they do cover over the central meaning of Christmas, that of salvation. We easily become caught up in the busy-ness and bonhomie of the season so that we have little opportunity or inclination to ask what we are being saved from, what we are being saved for and how we are in fact being saved.
Pope Francis provided the European Parliament with a grim diagnosis about the state of Europe when he spoke to the body Nov. 25. (See story on Page 13.) The continent, he said, is like an aging grandmother who is no longer fertile or vibrant. (Actually, we do know many vibrant grandmothers.) In glorifying individual rights, Europe is disregarding the right to life and treating some people as objects who can be discarded, "mere cogs in a machine." The selfish live opulent lifestyles and are indifferent to the suffering of the poor. Multinational corporations form "unseen empires" of economic power, and religious minorities are persecuted.
At both the first creation and the new creation, the Bible records the presence of the Holy Spirit. Even before God created light, the author of Genesis tells of "a wind from God" sweeping over the face of the waters (Genesis 1.2). At the Annunciation, Mary, puzzled that she should give birth to "the Son of the Most High" while a virgin, was informed by the angel Gabriel "the Holy Spirit will come upon you" (Luke 1.35). Mary, as is often noted, is the new Eve whose obedience overcomes the disobedience of the first Eve. St. Irenaeus in the second century described this as Mary untying the knot of disobedience that had been tied by Eve, an image that has recently gained new currency through Pope Francis' championing of devotion to Our Lady, Undoer of
It's no secret that there's been a massive drop-off in church attendance. Moreover, that drop-off in churchgoing is not paralleled by the same widespread growth in atheism and agnosticism. Rather, more and more people are claiming to be spiritual but not religious, faith-filled but not churchgoers. Why this exodus from our churches? The temptation inside religious circles is to blame what's happening on secularity. Secular culture, many people argue, is perhaps the most powerful narcotic ever perpetrated on this planet, both for good and for bad. It swallows most of us whole with its seductive promises of heaven on this side of eternity. Within our secularized world, the pursuit of the good life simply squeezes out almost all deeper religious desire.
We are just at the threshold of Christmas, a great event which – if we welcome it – is capable of changing our lives. A story by Tolstoy which I learned from Pope Benedict XVI helps me to share the light and life that springs from Christmas: Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer, tells in a short story of a harsh sovereign who asked his priests and sages to show him God so that he might see him. The wise men were unable to satisfy his desire. Then a shepherd, who was just coming in from the fields, volunteered to take on the task of the priests and sages. From him the king learned that his eyes were not good enough to see God.
Bicker. Bicker. Bicker. During recent years, people began snapping at each other, debating what greeting should be exchanged during this holiday season. It used to be "Merry Christmas." Now, with our influx of people from other countries, plus those who have stepped away from their Christian faith, "Merry Christmas" is often frowned upon. Various countries – especially those in the Nordic lands where it is dark for so many months – have their special hailings too. Now conversations, radio programs, schools are caught up in the proper seasonal words to use. What if the person is Jewish? Or maybe Muslim? Or maybe they do not celebrate this season at all. The fear of offending them is thrashed around in search of political correctness.
I love the Christmas season. I love it for the lights and music and excited anticipation I see in my grandchildren and every other child but mostly because the divine love given to us in the incarnation fills my heart. Such a love is unfathomable. All I can do is take in its warmth. God made man. God is with us. I feel sad for those who have not had an encounter with Christ, do not know or love him, and who do not live within the nurture of the Church. At best, Christmas for the unbeliever is superficial traditions, unfocused songs of vague sentimentality and a silly flaccid caricature of St. Nicholas we all know as Santa Claus. The world often refers to the true meaning of Christmas but rejects the true meaning of the incarnation.
Last night I watched Madi, my three-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, help set the table. She clutched her little handful of forks, and walked around the table carefully reaching up to place one beside each plate. Of course, we didn't need her to help, but giving her the job is a step on the way to more responsibility, and it makes her feel as though she is important in the family, that she can contribute and do her share. It was lovely to watch, this meticulous and careful fork placement, and it got me thinking about my role in God's work. Just as Madi can't grasp the full breadth of what is involved in making the meal I had cooked, so I am also not aware of all the ways God is at work in accomplishing the good in which I am so graciously given a role as helper.
When we hear the familiar Nativity story from Luke's Gospel, we often forget that the shepherds who heard the angels' message went back to being shepherds afterwards. They may have had a privileged, beatific, empowering encounter with the newborn Messiah; they may have been some of the first evangelists in history; they surely left the experience with a newfound joy that swallowed up all other emotions they felt for days thereafter. But, when all was said and done, they went back to being shepherds.
For the last three years I have faced insistent questioning from my 11-year-old daughter Sophie about whether there is a Santa. Her sense of hopeful wonder has been struggling mightily against the majority of her classmates and their clear certainty about the ruse. As we talked this through, I told her about a wonderful story I have always loved. It was about a similar child who, upon hearing from classmates that Santa was fictional, fled to his matter-of-fact grandmother for the truth. His grandmother never sugar-coated anything, and he secretly feared she would support his classmates. Instead, she insisted that Santa did exist and took little David to a general store to prove it.
"I'm dreaming of a (insert your favourite word here) Christmas, just like the ones I used to know . . .". My wish would be to insert the word "sane" if my Christmas dream was to come true. Don't get me wrong. I absolutely love the Christmas season. But a "sane" Christmas would mean less hustle and bustle, no crowded parking lots at chain stores, no pressure to find the "perfect (store-bought) gift," and fewer guilty feelings about leaving my ecological values aside in the rush to encourage the "Christmas spirit."