I graduated from high school in England back in 1977, and it’s grimly sobering that some of the people reading this column weren’t even born then! Be warned younger people—middle age creeps up on as surreptitiously as the most careful and crafty beasts of prey. There was a somewhat perfunctory party where students and teachers said goodbye to one another, but most of us were only too eager to see the back of school and go on to university, work, fun, whatever. I remained close to my oldest friend, who later was the best man at my wedding, but otherwise I have not maintained contact with most of my contemporaries. Frankly, I can’t even remember their names.
There was one couple, however, who I do remember: Jonathan and Angela. I say “couple” because while only 17-years-old back then, they always seemed to have been together. Not in some prurient way but as surprisingly mature, committed young people. They were also both extremely good-looking, athletic, and intelligent. With so many gifts they could at least have been unpleasant and rude just to balance things out, but they were also kind and generous—the model couple.
I recall Angela speaking to me at the party about her plans but I think I was too busy trying to look at her legs to listen to what she was saying (I wasn’t a Catholic at the time, so it was okay!). After that I pretty much forgot about Angela and Jonathan. I married, came to Canada, started a family, and moved on.
Fast-forward twenty years to a phone-call from that oldest friend. “Are you still visiting London at Christmas,” he asked, “and do you remember Jonathan and Angela?” I said “Yes” to both questions. “They’ve apparently been living in Africa and have just returned to Britain. They’re having a party to say hello to everybody. They want us all to know, however, that Jonathan was in an accident. Angela has been a teacher at a small school, and there had been a fire. One little boy, Joshua, had been left inside. Jonathan ran back in and rescued the boy. The child is fine, but Jonathan is badly burnt; they don’t want anybody to be shocked when they see him.”
I did indeed fly to London that Christmas, and made my way to the apartment whereJonathan and Angela were staying. It was Christmas Eve, and I’d planned to go to Midnight Mass after seeing them. As for burns and the accident, I had worked as a war reporter, had seen death up close, and I was—so foolishly prided myself—a man of the world. I arrived a little early, and knocked on the door. There was Angela, as lovely as ever. “Come in, come in”, she said. “You’re the first here, and Jonathan will be overjoyed so see you.”
There he was. This once strikingly handsome young man, sitting in a large armchair, his face so disguised by scar tissue that I could barely see his eyes. One ear seemed to be almost missing, and he had hardly any hair. I tried to register nonchalance, but it never works. Then he spoke, and the voice was the same as it had been two decades ago. And the words, the words. “All right Coren, I know I look a bloody mess. But at least one of us has kept their figure.”
I tried to laugh, but instead I began to cry. Angela ran to me, embraced me, said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry, we’ve both done a lot of that. Don’t worry.” Then a little African boy ran into the room, jumped on Jonathan’s lap and said, “Daddy, daddy!” Angela held my hand and said, “Have you met our new adopted son? His name is Joshua.”
I learned that night that Jonathan and Angela were Christians, had been all of their lives, and that after university they had worked as missionaries in Africa. Jonathan helped bring a clean water supply to the region; she set up and ran a school. Christ had formed their lives, their behavior, their relationship, their love, their sacrifice, and their courage. I should have known this years earlier but I was—yes—too busy trying to look at Angela’s legs. That was an evening, a Christmas, and a Midnight Mass I will never forget.
Let me be candid. There are times when I wonder if it’s all worth it. The internal politics of the Church; the ambitious Catholics—clergy and laity—who gossip and betray; those who are never happy unless they are condemning and criticizing the words and actions of others. It was Flannery O’Connor who spoke of suffering for the Church and suffering from the Church. The first is easy and rewarding, and can lead to deeper faith. The second is enervating and painful, and can lead to despair. But whenever I feel the sting, see the unfairness, shudder at the injustice, I try to think of Jonathan, Angela, and little Joshua. But most of all I think of what this season is all about, and it is about He whose birth we celebrate at Christmas.
I know the birth of Jesus Christ may well not have been in December and that it may not have been a stable, but I really could not care less. I have been to Bethlehem, but more importantly Bethlehem has been to me. I have not had to run into burning schools or put my life at risk, and my complaints about ill treatment are generally little more than privileged whines. Nor do I want to be a martyr, if it can be at all avoided. The point, though, is not whether we die for Christ but whether we are willing to die for Christ. If it’s love, it’s total. There’s no middle way when it comes to the romance of faith.
He became a baby so that we could know Him and understand Him properly. This is the quintessence of Christmas, the story of God becoming man—becoming child. Naked vulnerability guaranteeing eternal life. Angela reminded me of this when I spoke to her the day before I returned to Canada those twenty years ago. “Women used to turn and look at my husband in the street because he was so good-looking”, she said. “Now everybody turns and looks at him, but for other reasons.” A pause. “I’ve never stopped looking at him, and never will.”
Never stop looking at Jesus, as a baby, a child, an adult, a man dying on the Cross, a God restored to life, a savior with us until the end of time.
Have a blessed and wonderful Christmas.