Bringing peace and goodwill to everyone is a dark night of the soul

"Adoration of the Shepherds" was painted in 1622 by Gerard van Honthorst.

For my Latin student of 52 years ago, Thomas Halley (1952-2017). Requiescas in pace, amice.

For many years, I was part of and later oversaw a poetry workshop group at our public library. The meetings were essentially criticism sessions where poets and poets-to-be came every other week to share their work.    

A poet would read a poem and the gathered writers — a dozen or so — would respond with kudos or offer suggestions about how the writer might better say what he wanted. For concinnity’s sake at the very least.

A participant might use the phrase “to reiterate again” and a fellow poet would suggest: delete “again” because “re-iterate” implies repetition. That’s a small example.  

But there were two or three individuals in the group who, whatever was said, accepted nothing; they got huffy, short, and sometimes fired back at the offerer with a sharpened word. Their minds were made up about “what was what” and brooked no interloper.

Because Christmas is on its way, the other night I was re-reading the birth narrative of Jesus in the Christian gospel of Luke and, halfway through, began to think of those walled-in poets. I thought that, if they had been there that first Christmas, nothing would have happened. No angelic communiqué would have gotten over their psychic wall.

As you might know, the birth narrative tells of a young woman visited by an angel who informs her of a plan for a child to be born who will shake up the world and, incidentally, did she want to be part of it?  

A lot of old-timers believe the angel gave Mary an order, a command she could not refuse. But that’s not so. The angel told her she had a choice and should think things over because accepting the offer would bring great upheaval in her life.

He said the woman who accepted the invitation would be expected to conceive, give birth to, and rear a revolutionary whom a lot of people would call Savior or Messiah.

The angel warned her that this might sound exotic but the mission would bring considerable pain and sorrow. But he added that, if she adopted the ways of her son, she could experience a joy equal to God’s.

Like the poets in our library, Mary had been offered a gift about how to proceed in the future but the correction would not involve a typo or two but rather a restructuring of the grammar of one’s being.

The choice: revolutionary movement or status quo?

Those who have read these scriptures know that Mary accepted, got pregnant, and, just as she was about to deliver, had to go with her husband to a far-off town to be counted in a census.     

When she and Joseph arrived, they could not find a place to stay so were forced to use a stable, where animals were living, as the room where Mary would have her child.

There in the dark of night the young mother gave birth. She wrapped her son in shreds of cloth — the old scriptural versions say “swaddling clothes” — and, after feeding him, laid him in a wooden trough called a manger.

One of the other gospel writers, Matthew, adds to the story. He says, right after the birth, an angel appeared to a group of shepherds in nearby fields. The angel “announced” to them a child had been born close by who was destined to change the world and, incidentally, did they want to be part of the plan?

As with Mary, the shepherds had to think things over. They did, and soon found themselves in a stable overlooking the newborn child. Something happened there because they left and began going about telling people about what they had seen.

No one knows if they mentioned the Messiah-Savior thing, I don’t think they knew. Such labels were textual add-ons by the gospel writers.    

The Christmas story then is: an offering made and a choice to follow. But, as with the poets in our library who refused to choose, a lot of people want to hear nothing about choice at Christmas.

They want chestnuts roasting on an open fire or Der Bingle crooning “White Christmas”: “May your days be merry and bright.”

What they don’t want to hear is “where ... children listen.” That means becoming like a child, opening up to what’s in front of the eyes. Children are economical; they want to get things right so they can go about and offer joy to everyone.

Such a lot to chew on: never mind for a gal not yet 20. One of the gospelists says that, while Mary “treasured” all these things, she needed time to digest them. After all she was the Mother of Christmas.

Charles Dickens picked up on this in “A Christmas Carol.” A money-mongering miser, Scrooge, had reached a point in his life where he was treating people like dogs, dismissing their cries for help with a walled-in condescension.

The situation had reached a point, Dickens says, where the powers-that-be thought Scrooge needed a tune-up. They sent ghoulish ghosts to sully his dreams, hoping the scare would straighten him out.

It was Scrooge’s dark night of the soul. When he woke in the morning, he was radiant as he had seen things as they are; he started shouting out the window to passers-by on the street: “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, Everybody!” But he kept asking them what day it was, fearing he had missed his date with destiny.

It was not too late; it was Christmas, they said. Scrooge ran about buying gifts for everyone he knew to be in need, those whose needs he had dismissed as of no account. Everybody who’s read the story has Tiny Tim imbedded in their minds.

Tim was real for Dickens but he was also symbolic of every person everywhere whose needs are not being attended to.

Scrooge went to Tim’s home, the home of one of his employees, and eased the worries of the family. Scrooge kept saying the gift was to himself.   

I think today Scrooge would be shouting up and down to the streets that no human being deserves to worry about being sick because he hasn’t the means to purchase needed care. Scrooge would say every citizen of the United States should have the same health care coverage as every Senator from anywhere.  

And, with respect to help after hurricanes, Scrooge would demand that every citizen on the Island of Puerto Rico and every soul in the Virgin Islands be treated as one of us. To think otherwise is a crime.       

These are the kinds of things Mary needed to ponder if she decided to follow the ways of her son. Bringing peace and goodwill to everyone is a dark night of the soul.

What I like about Christmas is Christmas Eve, after everybody’s gone to bed, and the cold silence of winter enters my room, and it does every year. But there, once, sitting in the darkness I swear I heard an angel asking about my plans and whether they included bringing peace and goodwill to everyone.