Left: “Nativity: Birth of Jesus” (1306); right: “The Road to Calvary” (1305), both by Giotto.
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 peoplemiddle 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 generousthe 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.
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 wasso foolishly prided myselfa 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.”
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 wasyestoo 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 Catholicsclergy and laitywho 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 manbecoming 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
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.