As the trees pile up on curbsides, light strings are peeled from shrubbery, and nativities are boxed up for next year, contributor Ellyn von Huben asks that we look beyond any annoyances or aggravations we experienced this Christmas, and remember those who are practicing their faith in the line of fire.
The world abounds with cognitive dissonance, especially this time of year. And I’m not just talking about my ongoing confusion with the figure of Father Christmas perched atop one of the Christmas trees in my otherwise quite proper parish. (Am I the only one who sees him? Perhaps he is a just a figment of my imagination; a Dickensian, "undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.”) Or the split second when I almost responded to the proclamation of the Gospel on Christmas Eve (Luke 2: 1-14) with “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” rather than “Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.”
Here we are at this most joyous time, floating in a murky stream of cognitive dissonance. Pillows, wall plaques, ornaments are adorned with single word directives: JOY, LOVE, BELIEVE. A few brave souls still sport “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” buttons, though the chaos leading up to the happy, holy day almost begs a different campaign that pleads for the Holy Child, “Don’t Blame Me.” The Word—the Divine Logos—became flesh to dwell among us and we celebrate with 120 hour shopping marathons and ugly sweater parties.
The "problems" that I face—finishing shopping and decorating, planning which Mass to attend, and timing our arrival to ensure parking and a place to sit—are laughable when compared to the concerns of my fellow Christians. In a Christmas Day op-ed piece, Archbishop Timothy Dolan reminds us of the sobering reality of the Christmas celebration elsewhere: “Many will hope that no bomb will go off during worship, that no terrorists or hostile police will barge in, and that they’ll make it back home safely for a quiet, secluded Christmas celebration with scared family and friends.”
For example, no fictitious Grinch is needed in Nigeria where the Boko Haram was responsible for Christmas Day bombings that took 35 lives. I would invite anyone who is feeling put-upon by the burden of pulling together Christmas festivities to do a Google image search using, say, Nigeria, violence, Christians. Be prepared for harsh cognitive dissonance. Be prepared to see that there is torture beyond hearing Barbra Streisand sing “Jingle Bells” for the hundredth time.
Wherever it may be happening—China, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt—Archbishop Dolan distills this widespread phenomenon to a single word, “Christophobia.” And he cites a shocking statistic: 80 percent of the acts of religious intolerance in the world today are directed against Christians. That is horrifying. And shocking in its cognitive dissonance to someone like me, saturated in the American mainstream media’s constant assertions of the intolerance and hatefulness of the followers of Christ.
Remember that part in "A Christmas Carol" when The Ghost of Christmas Present draws back his robe to reveal those two wretched children? ("They are Man’s," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”) Much of the Dickens Christmas has faded into nostalgia, but Ignorance and Want are with us still. They were very much present in the comments of Paul Bhatti, Adviser to the Pakistani Prime Minister, to L'Osservatore Romano: “If we don't succeed in eradicating poverty and ignorance in our country, then we will not be able to combat the phenomenon of religious intolerance.” The intolerance to which Bhatti refers includes the plight of Christians in prison for blasphemy against Islam. In the case of Asia Bibi, spending her third Christmas in prison, the penalty for offense against the Prophet Mohammed may be death. Ponder this if you think the tortures of intolerance were the patronizing "tsks" of relatives when you prayed before Christmas dinner.
The child Ignorance is not exiled to the opposite side of the globe. The third day of Christmas brought me the USA Today article outlining the chosen ignorance of America’s "apatheists.” This is a group exemplified by the 44 percent who “told the 2011 Baylor University Religion Survey they spend no time seeking "eternal wisdom." Ignorance turned inward is not immediately apparent. But the spiritual menace leads to doom as surely as ignorance turned outward.
All the cognitive dissonance is enough to make me tear my hair out. Believers risking their lives to worship while others foam at the mouth at the prospect of navigating the overcrowded church parking lot. And worse yet, while there are Christians putting their lives on the line to practice their faith, there are so many who can’t be troubled to give God so much as a thought.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.
May all open their eyes and see the light.
Ellyn von Huben is a regular contributor to the Word on Fire blog.