Thursday, 30 December 2010


There is no choice. There is no other way. At this season of the year the only way I can reach God is through the birth of His Son, Jesus.

Whenever I've been writing for this blog at the back of my mind have been the opening words of the Letter to the Hebrews,
"At many moments in the past and by various means, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets,"
(Hebrews 1. 1)

Over the past years I have come to recognise many and varied prophetic moments when God has been speaking to me -many of them fanciful and bizarre. These have been moments of grace, full of insight. I have attempted to respond to what God has been saying to me.

The Letter to the Hebrews continues,
"In our time, the final days, he spoke to us in the person of His Son."

I have celebrated many a memorable Christmas when I've felt close to God -those of my childhood, those in large communities during the years of my Dominican formation as a priest, those as pastor of several parishes. Each in different ways has quickened and inspired my spirit. I cherish them all. On a few occasions there has been a Christmas of sad bewilderment when I've mourned the death of a member of my family. Such a variety of ways in which God has been speaking to me at Christmas. It has been up to me to discern how He expects me to reach Him this year.

What, then, stands out for me as something that I would want to share with you?
I think of the time I was making the rounds of the General Hospital in Grenada during the Christmas season. The lights in the maternity ward were subdued. There, in a corner, sat a father and mother silently gazing at their newly born son, lying in a hospital crib. It was a spectacle of love, awe and thanksgiving. I approached with diffidence, not wanting to disturb the magic of the moment. Behold, this family tableau was one of the most moving experience of my life.

Here I saw the beauty of Bethlehem -Joseph and Mary speechless as they looked down upon Jesus, lying in the manger. How great must have been their love, wonder, thanksgiving. Jesus was, literally, an adorable child.

And then I made my presence known to the father and mother -dear friends of mine. My arms encircling them in a loving embrace. Words of congratulation mingled with joyful laughter. And then I gently kissed the brow of their baby boy. Even now, as I write this posting, I tremble with emotion.

My thoughts return to Bethlehem. How would I have responded if I had been there on that Holy Night? Just as I did in the maternity ward, with hugs and kisses, laughter and congratulations. And of course I would have kissed the brow of the baby Jesus.

What a wonderful way to reach God...My way -letting my impulses to love gush forth upon the Tableau of my friends' family -holy in its own right -and, in so doing, reach out to the Tableau of the Holy Family -there in my heart, though not physically, present to me.

Peter O.P.
Peter and Isidore wish our readers Every Blessing
Christmastide and the New Year

In a fortnight's time Isidore will reflect on meeting God as he made an omelette.

Saturday, 18 December 2010


"The Word (of God) became flesh and dwelt amongst us"
With those few words John's Gospel expresses the wonder of Christmas.

Artists throughout the ages and of every race and culture have tried to express what the birth of Jesus meant for them and their people. They realized that He was not simply a Jewish baby born at Bethlehem some two thousand years ago. Certainly He was all that. But Jesus was, is, one of us -whatever our culture and wherever we live. He lived and died for each and every one of us. Whatever our backgrounds we are no longer outsiders to Jesus, or He to us. While respecting our differences He has broken down the barriers which separate us.

With this in mind I used Google Search to discover how artists of different cultures had depicted the Nativity and Epiphany in paintings and crib figures. What I found was a real eye-opener! What a rich cultural variety!

When I typed in "Eskimo Nativity" I found crib figures based on that culture. Jesus was born in an igloo. The Holy Family were all clothed in typical animal skins. To suggest that the whole creation welcomed His birth there's a polar bear and seal come to adore Him. Another search revealed a statue of an exquisite Eskimo Madonna and Child.

Then I discovered a Peruvian Epiphany. To my delight the Holy Family was dressed in the clothing of that culture. Instead of the Magi's camels there were llamas.

Excitedly I looked for pictures from all round the world. The pattern was the same. From the Far East to the Americas, from Africa to India, and from Europe to the Caribbean each country presented the birth of the
Saviour of the world in the imagery of its own culture.

And what a rich creative variety of pictures and statues I found! In so many of them people have woven elements from their own particular cultures to express their belief that the Son of God became a human baby and dwelt amongst us. The variety in the representations of the Nativity proclaims our shared conviction that the babe born at Bethlehem comes to us where we are. Though He was born long ago in a distant land He is far from being a stranger. He is one of us. He identifies with us, and we with Him.

I say, "We" rather than, "You" because my European culture has its own particular way of expressing its faith in pictures, statues and crib figures -just as yours does.

I don't know of any contemporary European artist portraying the Holy Family in modern dress, with the Magi arriving in a luxury car. But I did find a Haitian Nativity with Mary wearing a blouse, skirt and knotted head scarf, while Joseph wore a T shirt and jeans. Deliberately very contemporary. Shocking? If so, why?

That reminds me of the time when I was working at a conference centre. Deciding to give a hand with the Christmas decorations I made several mobiles -not portable telephones, but figures hanging on threads from bits of wire. One of my mobiles had angels playing musical instruments. Not the traditional harps and trumpets, but guitars and bongo drums. I was accused of being irreverent. Why?

John's Gospel tells us that, "The Word (of God) became flesh and dwelt amongst us," and that "He came to His own people." But who were THEY? Most obviously Jews living in the land of Israel some 2000 years ago. So the appearance and clothing of Jesus would have been typical of that time, place and culture and race. That's what it meant for Him to be a historical person, who blended with His background.

But the faith and imagination of artists has leaped beyond the historical. Rightly they realized that in becoming man Jesus identified with the whole human race, which He had joined and which He had come to save. That includes peoples of different times, races and cultures. There's not a single person on the face of the earth, or even in the womb, without his or her particular race and culture.

Though Jesus has broken down the barriers which separate us, the differences remain and enrich the life of the Christian community of the Church. Paul reassures us,
"There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ,"
(Galatians 3. 27). And again in Ephesians 2. 19,
"So then, you are no longer strangers or aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God."

As I ponder the different ways each culture depicts the birth of our saviour I'm powerfully reminded of our conviction that the Son of God shared our human life so that we could share His divine life. He comes to each of us where we are, in our own personal culture and background. That's where He approaches us; that's where we meet Him; that's where we draw close to Him. He builds on our cultural and racial heritage, bringing to perfection all that is good in them.

My discovery of such a variety of images of ethnic Nativities, including my own, has taught me that not only is Jesus an individual Jew, born in the Middle East a long time ago; He is also Everyman for Everybody. Whatever our race or culture He is one of us, and we, who come from diverse backgrounds, are all members of His single family. Our particular cultural heritage gives a special quality to the way each one of us meets God and expresses our love for Him. And He comes to us in our racial and cultural individuality.

I welcome not only you brothers and sisters of my own background, but also those of you who are very different from me. In you God's image is expressed in so many different, wonderful and beautiful ways. In you I meet God dwelling within you. You offer your culture not only to Him, but also to me. That enriches my understanding of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.
A suggestion. Try using Google Image Search to discover your own and other people's cultural expression of the Birth of Our Saviour. I've only hinted at the treasures waiting to be discovered!
Isidore O.P.
In a fortnight's time Peter will reflect on a Nativity Tableau.
In the meantime we both wish all our readers
the special Christmas joy, peace and happiness,
which only the Babe Born at Bethlehem can give.

Monday, 6 December 2010


"Happy Families" is a simple card game, which has entertained many of us on dark, wet nights. Each family is identified by the employment of its bread winner, in some ways the defining member of the family. Notice how people thought of Jesus,
"This is the carpenter's son, surely?
Is not his mother the woman called Mary?"
(Matt. 13. 55).

That got me doing some hard thinking. What happens when we no longer have a job? Perhaps we can't get employment, or we've been made redundant, become chronically ill, or have retired. What do people think of us then? More important, what do we think of ourselves? Does being unemployed mean we lose our own and other people's respect? Because we can no longer be defined by a job do we fear we have become non-persons? Can we still be happy members of our families or communities when we can no longer hold down a job? These can be very real, painful questions.

Many of you will have had to try to come to terms with enforced unemployment. That was certainly true for me when aged thirty I picked up a tropical illness, which it was thought, would mean that I would never be able to work again.

As I imagined the years, the decades ahead, my future looked very bleak. I had to ask myself whether my Dominican vocation was determined by what I did as a member of the Order of Preachers. In other words, had I become a lesser Dominican because I was no longer an active one? At times I felt like a goldfish trapped in a small bowl as I watched life, and saw my active brethren dash past me, leaving me behind.

This was a very critical time for me. I hit rock bottom. At times I felt full of despair -a useless burden to myself and everyone else. My years of Dominican training could not have prepared me to face such a crisis. As a matter of personal survival I had to find a positive approach to my enforced inactivity and self-doubts.

Very gradually I came to realize that there was much more to being a Dominican than being an active preacher. Gradually I came to recognize that God was calling me to a special expression of our Dominican vocation. As members of the Order of Preachers we are called to witness to the Good News of salvation through the suffering, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

That, I realized, could be done in a special way by frail and sick people, including me. Although I couldn't be actively involved in preaching at home or abroad, my prayers could support those who were on the front line. All who are frail and sick can play a vital part in the life and mission of the Church. This is a difficult, but very special vocation. St. Therese of Liseaux used to say, "Being sick is hard work." It is, indeed!

But St Paul goes much further and reassures us with the words,
"I am now rejoicing in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of His body, that is the Church,"
(Colossians 1. 24).
What on earth could that mean? Certainly Jesus didn't fail to do sufficient to save the human race from the power of sin and death -with the implication that we had to make up the deficit.

But if the Church as a whole is to share in Christ's victory over evil she must first identify with Him in the suffering through which He gained that triumph. For Christ and for us, His followers, the cross is the way to glory. Those who suffer can identify with the crucified Christ in a unique way. With Him they can offer their afflictions for the salvation of the world. They don't just talk eloquently about the pain of Christ, but witness to it's value by sharing in it.

Paradoxically, Jesus achieved most when He was utterly helpless, apparently a useless failure. Knowing that should makes us revise our ideas about who is a success or failure. Who, in fact, are the real achievers? Certainly we shouldn't value other people, or ourselves, according to the amount of work they and we can do.

I've been fortunate in that unexpectedly I've made a remarkable recovery and have been able to do a considerable amount of work. Now old age is restricting my activities and I can't do nearly as much as my younger brethren.

But I do hope that my experience has enabled me to empathize with those who suffer, and that I can convince them of the special value of their lives. I am certain that illness modifies, but does not change our identities. It doesn't make us any less a person. With God's grace it can even make us a better one.

Today the aged and chronically sick are increasingly seen as being a disposable burden on the community. But my personal experience has taught me that we have a special dignity, deserving respect. We have a unique way of identifying with the crucified Christ. Through our weakness and suffering we meet Him in a special way, and share in His work of salvation. Those who are active and healthy can help us to become fulfilled and happy members of the human family by showing us the dignity and respect they -we -deserve.

God has shown me that His special way for me to meet Him is through the suffering and death of his Son, Jesus. Then it's been up to me to decide whether I can accept this as being my way of meeting God. For me this is God's way, my way, for finding peace, meaning God-given identity!
Isidore O.P.

In a fortnight's time Isidore will reflect on meeting God in "Llamas, Polar Bears and the Baby Jesus"