Magnificent Desolation, Agonizing Love

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."

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Sojourners Magazine January 2004
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