The Common Good
January 2004

Magnificent Desolation, Agonizing Love

by Rose Marie Berger | January 2004

I need an incarnation more powerful than the hell of the daily headlines.

I am sitting in the sixth pew of the sixth largest Gothic cathedral in the world, listening to the choir practice for Christmas and staring at the leaded glass "Space Window," which holds a sliver of moon rock. In 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped from Apollo 11 onto the cold lunar surface, his words rang around the world—"One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." The words of Buzz Aldrin, who stepped to the moon seconds later, were largely lost. Seeing the swirling blue-and-white quarter Earth suspended in black with a background of stars, Aldrin uttered, "O magnificent desolation."

I loved Christmas when I was a child. Not so much for the gift giving, but for the ritual. As Catholics, we fully entered into the entire Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany experience. Our house became a stage on which, as a family, we acted out the ancient Christian story. The evergreens of the Advent wreath filled our dining room with the smell of the mountains—an untamed place where anything could happen. Its candles measured time in a way that was out of the ordinary.

My father built a small manger from scrap wood. Every evening during Advent my parents asked us what act of kindness we did that day. For each good thing, we could put a piece of straw in the manger. The warmth and welcome of the baby Jesus on Christmas depended on the quality (and quantity) of kindness we showed to the poor during Advent.

Christmas, as an adult, is more difficult. When I asked the owner of the local corner store if she was excited about Christmas, she shook her head no. "People rob me more at Christmas," she said. "Maybe even bad people want to buy presents."

And tonight a friend told me that she doesn't watch the growing light on the Advent wreath with hopeful anticipation anymore, but with dreadful trepidation. "Why was God born to us if he was only going to abandon us in the end? If he was only going to leave us to fend for ourselves?" O magnificent desolation; such agonizing love. It burns in the bones. At Christmas it is unwrapped, laid bare, unswaddled.

We live in an excruciating world. Are Advent and Christmas only annual psychological pilgrimages to childhood memories? Are they merely rites that we hope will create the world anew, as social anthropologists might describe it, if we properly re-enact a sacred story? I need an incarnation more powerful than the hell of the daily headlines.

A FEW YEARS AGO, hiking in the Peruvian Andes, I got stuck in a cave. My friends were ahead of me and turned a corner. Suddenly, I was alone. There was no flashlight. I am very claustrophobic.

For a moment I felt sheer terror—that physically urgent need to be anywhere else. Then I had a brief vision from above my body. I was looking down on the curve of the Earth, the high field in the mountains, the pile of rocks with the cave's mouth, and my body trapped in a granite crevice below the surface. Next, I just stopped breathing—like someone pulled the plug on my being. The darkness, to say it simply, unmade me.

Now, swaddled in this cathedral of Indiana limestone, I remember that experience. "I am such a long way in," said the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. "I see no way through and no space: everything is close to my face, and everything close to my face is stone." Is this some bit of the terror of Advent? That we must become lost, then unmade? The minutes alone in the cave seemed to last a lifetime.

Suddenly, I smelled the phosphorous odor of a match. A flame illuminated the face of an elderly Incan man who reached for my hand. The warmth of his coarsened palm restored me to myself. I breathed.

And is this Christmas? That we are grasped by the hand of another and given back to our self? When the desert father Abba Hilarion went to visit Abba Anthony in his mountain cave, Anthony greeted him, saying, "You are welcome, torch which awakens the day." Abba Hilarion replied, "Peace to you, pillar of light, giving light to the world." Is this what God is trying to say? Be flame.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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