Media CenterCarolyn Woo’s CNS Column: 'The Day After Christmas'

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By Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
December 2013

I commence this essay for December from an "off-tempo" frame of mind. I just completed a talk for the commemoration of the Jesuit priests martyred in El Salvador in 1989. In my preparation, I also encountered other Salvadoran martyrs -- Archbishop Romero and the four Church women whose deaths also fell in the month of December. When reviewing the readings for the Christmas Octave, the feast of St. Stephen on the day after Christmas held my thoughts. Thus the accounts of martyrdom form the spiritual brackets in which Advent and Christmas of 2013 come into view.

Also dominant are reflections of 2013 which has not been an easy year. On a personal note, I lost a good friend and spiritual director in Bishop John D'Arcy who called during last Christmas season to tell me of an aggressive cancer which would only give him months to live. At work, we were confronted with the plight of the Syrian refugees, hardships of the countries which extended hospitality to them, the bombing of Christian churches in various parts of the world, security threats to our staff, and now the millions of Filipinos left without shelter and livelihood in the wake of a terrible typhoon.

What does Christmas mean when there is so much suffering, darkness and violence? Without fully comprehending the meaning of the choice, we crafted the theme "Where God is" for the CRS 2012 annual report. We wanted to proclaim that where there is poverty, hunger, disasters, oppression, there is God. Indeed that has been our experience in the field. We have seen assistance, generosity, commitment: God’s abundance in the people He sent. We have seen joy in the faces of folks at the arrival of strangers who claim them as family and give them the assurance that they have not been forgotten. We cannot help but say "amen" when communities marginalized and ravaged by disease rise in health, prosperity and dignity. When seething resentment between enemies gives way to shared understanding of loss and the desire to spare others of unspeakable pain, you can take a photo of Isaiah's sword turning into plowshares, and the lamb and lion resting together.

When reading the accounts of the martyrs, what gripped me most was not their deaths, but their love. They made choices for what they love: God and the people they lived with. The Jesuit priests were unshaken in their commitment to a Catholic university where justice was in every activity and truth would be the language in which their students were schooled. Maryknoll sister, Maura Clark (one of the Salvadoran martyrs) wrote to her teenage niece imparting a wish that she would find something she loves enough to die for. Bishop D'Arcy reminded me that he was going to see God, to whom he had dedicated his life, face to face. He did so on the anniversary of his ordination.

Joy and peace: the standing wishes we see in most religious Christmas cards are not just promises: God himself came into our world and our lives to make these real. Against all odds, human frailties and our limited imagination, God invites us not to be afraid. Hope is not audacious because it is not based on what we can do, but what God can do. Like Stephen, the Salvadoran martyrs saw Christ not only in the crib on Christmas Day, but standing at their side in their daily lives. Stephen's feast makes the connection between Christ's birth and new life for us. For the people who inspire this essay, the Christmas message "Emmanuel: God with us" never dimmed.

Dr. Woo is the president & CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. This article is part of her ongoing monthly column, Our Global Family, written for Catholic News Service.

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