In 2002 I attended a month-long conference in Korea with about 30 other Sisters of Notre Dame from all over the world. While there I had the opportunity to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the 155-mile border between North and South Korea.
The DMZ, which is about two miles wide, is supposedly the most heavily fortified border in the world. It is an eerie place, a veritable “no man’s land” where (ironically) wild life flourishes because there are no humans there to disturb it. The highlight of that visit for me was when we Sisters, standing at the very edge of that border and gazing into North Korea, spontaneously sang together (in three part harmony) Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace). It was a very moving experience for me and a fitting song to sing at a fortified border that no one dares to cross.
That experience caused me to reflect on other borders—such as the ones in scripture. Abraham left the security of his native land and journeyed across many borders into Canaan. The Hebrews, under the leadership of Moses, crossed the border of the Red Sea in their quest for freedom. Years later their descendants crossed the border of the Jordan River into the Promised Land. In our own day, refugees from the Mideast are pouring across the borders into Europe at grave peril to themselves. As daring as all of these border crossings are, they pale in comparison to the greatest border crossing of all that lies at the heart of our faith: the Incarnation.
Christmas celebrates this border crossing of God. It celebrates God becoming a human being. God crossing the border between heaven and earth, between divinity and humanity. Unfortunately, we sometimes take the Incarnation for granted. As the writer Brennan Manning has said, we fail “to quake at the inbreak of God Almighty.” In doing so we “rob Christmas of its shock value.” Father Ronald Rolheiser adds that we tend to reduce the Incarnation to something that happened 2,000 years ago. But, he says, the Incarnation was not a thirty-three year experiment nor was it a one-shot deal. Jesus continues to live through all time, in all places, and in all people.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus showed that he was a radical border crosser. He crossed the borders of convention by associating with all kinds of people: Jew and Gentile, men and women, rich and poor, sick and healthy. In addition, Jesus challenged his followers to cross borders. “Love one another,” he said over and over again, fully aware that only love has the power to break down barriers that separate us from one another.
One quality that encourages border crossing is the gift of empathy. Monka Hellweig, in her book Guests of God, writes, “The human capacity for empathy is the ability to cross over a kind of bridge of imagination into the experience of another person.” With empathy, we can recognize cruelty because we can imagine the pain and suffering of the other. Similarly, we recognize kindness because we can imagine the joy it brings.
This Christmas, let us make time to reflect on the “shock value” of the event we are commemorating. Let us also humbly identify the borders that we—as individuals, local communities, and even nations—have erected to keep others out. Let us beg God for the gift of empathy that enables us to imagine the experience of another and to respond in love. And let us pray…
Jesus, Incarnate One,
you stand at the edge of our borders,
those lines we have drawn with such deliberation,
those walls we have erected out of fear.
And you say, “Cross over!”
And we say, “I can’t… I’m too afraid.” And you say, “I understand your fear. But come! I will be with you.”
Loving Jesus, help us to be border crossers as you are.
Help us to use the bridge of our imagination to empathize with others,
especially those who are different from ourselves and those in need.
Give us courage to invite others into the sacred space of who we are
and into our homes and communities.
And when death, that final border crossing, comes,
may we step trustingly and joyfully into the fullness of your love. Amen.
For Christmas I am offering you too beautiful songs that, for me, capture the “shock value” of the Incarnation. The first song is “Mary Did You Know?” sung by Kenny Rogers and Wyonna Judd. This version posts the lyrics of the song against a canopy of stars alternating with beautiful Madonnas. The second song is “Joseph’s Lullaby” by the Christian rock band, Mercyme. This song sees the first Christmas from Joseph’s perspective. At this time I want to thank you again for reading my blog. And I wish all of you and your loved ones a very Merry Christmas!
Have you ever crossed a border between two countries? If so, what kind of an experience was that like for you?
Have you ever crossed another kind of border, for example, a border of convention, a border of fear, a border bridged by empathy? Would you be willing to share any of that experience with us?
What impresses or touches you the most about Christmas?