Articles of interest and instruction
Christmas Eve Mass, Pope Francis’ homily for Christmas 2022
Vatican City, Dec 24, 2022 / 13:00 pm
What does this night still have to say to our lives? Two thousand years after the birth of Jesus, after so many Christmases spent amid decorations and gifts, after so much consumerism that has packaged the mystery we celebrate, there is a danger. We know many things about Christmas, but we forget its real meaning. So how do we rediscover the meaning of Christmas? First of all, where do we go to find it? The Gospel of Jesus’ birth appears to have been written precisely for this purpose: to take us by the hand and lead us where God would have us go.
It starts with a situation not unlike our own: everyone is bustling about, getting ready for an important event, the great census, which called for much preparation. In that sense, the atmosphere was very much like our modern celebration of Christmas. Yet the Gospel has little to do with that worldly scenario; it quickly shifts our gaze to something else, which it considers more important. It is a small and apparently insignificant detail that it nonetheless mentions three times, always in relation to the central figures in the narrative. First, Mary places Jesus “in a manger” (Lk 2:7); then the angels tell the shepherds about “a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (v. 12); and finally, the shepherds, who find “the child lying in the manger” (v. 16). In order to rediscover the meaning of Christmas, we need to look to the manger. Yet why is the manger so important? Because it is the sign, and not by chance, of Christ’s coming into this world. It is how he announces his coming. It is the way God is born in history, so that history itself can be reborn. What then does the Lord tell us? Through the manger, three things, at least: closeness, poverty and concreteness.
Closeness. The manger serves as a feeding trough, to enable food to be consumed more quickly. In this way, it can symbolize one aspect of our humanity: our greed for consumption. While animals feed in their stalls, men and women in our world, in their hunger for wealth and power, consume even their neighbours, their brothers and sisters. How many wars have we seen! And in how many places, even today, are human dignity and freedom treated with contempt! As always, the principal victims of this human greed are the weak and the vulnerable. This Christmas too, as in the case of Jesus, a world ravenous for money, ravenous for power and ravenous for pleasure does not make room for the little ones, for so many unborn, poor and forgotten children. I think above all of the children devoured by war, poverty and injustice. Yet those are the very places to which Jesus comes, a child in the manger of rejection and refusal. In him, the Child of Bethlehem, every child is present. And we ourselves are invited to view life, politics and history through the eyes of children.
In the manger of rejection and discomfort, God makes himself present. He comes there because there we see the problem of our humanity: the indifference produced by the greedy rush to possess and consume. There, in that manger, Christ is born, and there we discover his closeness to us. He comes there, to a feeding trough, in order to become our food. God is no father who devours his children, but the Father who, in Jesus, makes us his children and feeds us with his tender love. He comes to touch our hearts and to tell us that love alone is the power that changes the course of history. He does not remain distant and mighty, but draws near to us in humility; leaving his throne in heaven, he lets himself be laid in a manger.
Dear brother, dear sister, tonight God is drawing near to you, because you are important to him. From the manger, as food for your life, he tells you: “If you feel consumed by events, if you are devoured by a sense of guilt and inadequacy, if you hunger for justice, I, your God, am with you. I know what you are experiencing, for I experienced it myself in that manger. I know your weaknesses, your failings and your history. I was born in order to tell you that I am, and always will be, close to you”. The Christmas manger, the first message of the divine Child, tells us that God is with us, he loves us and he seeks us. So take heart! Do not allow yourself to be overcome by fear, resignation or discouragement. God was born in a manger so that you could be reborn in the very place where you thought you had hit rock bottom. There is no evil, there is no sin, from which Jesus does not want to save you. And he can. Christmas means that God is close to us: let confidence be reborn!
The manger of Bethlehem speaks to us not only of closeness, but also of poverty. Around the manger there is very little: hay and straw, a few animals, little else. People were warm in the inn, but not here in the coldness of a stable. Yet that is where Jesus was born. The manger reminds us that he was surrounded by nothing but love: Mary, Joseph and the shepherds; all poor people, united by affection and amazement, not by wealth and great expectations. The poverty of the manger thus shows us where the true riches in life are to be found: not in money and power, but in relationships and persons.
And the first person, the greatest wealth, is Jesus himself. Yet do we want to stand at his side? Do we draw close to him? Do we love his poverty? Or do we prefer to remain comfortably ensconced in our own interests and concerns? Above all, do we visit him where he is to be found, namely in the poor mangers of our world? For that is where he is present. We are called to be a Church that worships a Jesus who is poor and that serves him in the poor. As a saintly bishop once said: “The Church supports and blesses efforts to change the structures of injustice, and sets down but one condition: that social, economic and political change truly benefit the poor” (O.A. ROMERO, Pastoral Message for the New Year, 1 January 1980). Certainly, it is not easy to leave the comfortable warmth of worldliness to embrace the stark beauty of the grotto of Bethlehem, but let us remember that it is not truly Christmas without the poor. Without the poor, we can celebrate Christmas, but not the birth of Jesus. Dear brothers, dear sisters, at Christmas God is poor: let charity be reborn!
We now come to our last point: the manger speaks to us of concreteness. Indeed, a child lying in a manger presents us with a scene that is striking, even crude. It reminds us that God truly became flesh. As a result, all our theories, our fine thoughts and our pious sentiments are no longer enough. Jesus was born poor, lived poor and died poor; he did not so much talk about poverty as live it, to the very end, for our sake. From the manger to the cross, his love for us was always palpable, concrete. From birth to death, the carpenter’s son embraced the roughness of the wood, the harshness of our existence. He did not love us only in words; he loved us with utter seriousness!
Consequently, Jesus is not satisfied with appearances. He who took on our flesh wants more than simply good intentions. He who was born in the manger, demands a concrete faith, made up of adoration and charity, not empty words and superficiality. He who lay naked in the manger and hung naked on the cross, asks us for truth, he asks us to go to the bare reality of things, and to lay at the foot of the manger all our excuses, our justifications and our hypocrisies. Tenderly wrapped in swaddling clothes by Mary, he wants us to be clothed in love. God does not want appearances but concreteness. May we not let this Christmas pass without doing something good, brothers and sisters. Since it is his celebration, his birthday, let us give him the gifts he finds pleasing! At Christmas, God is concrete: in his name let us help a little hope to be born anew in those who feel hopeless!
Jesus we behold you lying in the manger. We see you as close, ever at our side: thank you Lord! We see you as poor, in order to teach us that true wealth does not reside in things but in persons, and above all in the poor: forgive us, if we have failed to acknowledge and serve you in them. We see you as concrete, because your love for us is palpable. Help us to give flesh and life to our faith.
Easter is Why
I am listening to my favourite piece of music as I write this. It is the first classical recording I ever purchased, at the record store in the Manning Building at Sydney University. Apart from the beauty of the piece, it raises the memory of when I first heard – and saw – it.
I had just been to a movie, Children of a Lesser God, where a teacher of students, who are hearing impaired, is asked to show what a piece of music “looks like” when someone is unable to hear the sounds. And so, I fell in love with the Second Movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, and Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb moved into second place.
We are invited, as disciples, to bear witness to the gospel which has changed our lives. What does that look, and sound, like? Our word “martyr” is a direct descendant of the Greek word which means to bear witness, to testify. We bear witness not just with our words, but with our bodies, our very lives.
Easter is when God bears witness to us. It is when Jesus Christ, in his very life, testifies to all that God is, in mercy, and suffering, and hope. And love.
We are inheritors of a story where the God of all creation, and all of history, becomes as one with us, suffers and dies. We wait, in silence, and are astonished when Christ’s resurrection proclaims God’s intention to save creation and all within.
So, when we are asked to show what this symphony looks like, to those whose hearing is impaired by all the other demands and voices and fears and sounds of our raucous world, what shall we do?
How shall we bear witness to this Christ, with more than our words, or with actions that confirm our words?
Some of us persist with the false dichotomy, being either “evangelists” or advocates of “social justice”. This conversation is a waste of God’s mission and a waste of our time. When Jesus healed people, they received their lives back socially and physically. When Jesus offered forgiveness, it was restorative of life and community.
I was asked recently why our Uniting Church is so engaged – and progressive – regarding concerns in our community. I responded that our faith in Jesus places us squarely in the marketplace of our world.
Our faith in Jesus has us kneeling beside those whose lives seem beyond repair. Our faith in Christ crucified would have us nowhere else, and whether the brokenness comes from our own hands, or the hand of another, that is where we belong.
Easter is why we feed those who are hungry for bread and justice and forgiveness; that is why we advocate for refugees, chained by politics here and overseas; that is why we agitate about fair treatment for those trapped in the prison of addiction; that is why we offer a voice for our planet, particularly to those leaders who ears are stoppered.
And we are not there only because Christ is crucified. We are there because Christ is raised. The hope of Christ’s resurrection proclaims our belief that forgiveness for sins is real. We believe that chains can be broken, and prisoners released; we declare that our ears can be opened, as well as our hearts.
Easter is why we worship, in voices and languages and music which reflect the world in which we live, the hospitality we offer and the God whom we serve. We worship and witness and serve, imitating the crucified and risen One, with the Spirit’s inspiration, to the glory of God.
Rev. Simon Hansford
From time to time, I come across a list of life lessons "as described by an 80-year-old man." They've been widely shared online, and maybe you've seen them pop up in your social feeds.
As I read them again recently, I couldn't help but notice a common thread--how these principles relate to our ability to process and handle emotions. (I recently wrote a book on the very same subject, EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence.)
Since I'm a fan of guidelines that are practical and easy to remember, I figured I'd share my favourites here--along with a few of my own thoughts.
1. Have a firm handshake.
Because nothing beats a good first impression.
2. Look people in the eye.
Build your self-confidence, and build others' confidence in you.
3. Sing in the shower.
Change your mood and inspire positivity.
4. Own a great stereo system.
Because music is one of the biggest influences on our emotions.
5. Keep secrets.
Otherwise, you'll quickly lose others' trust.
6. Never give up on anybody.
Miracles happen every day.
7. Always accept an outstretched hand.
No man is an island.
8. Be brave. Even if you're not, pretend to be.
Because no one can tell the difference.
Same reason as No. 3.
10. Avoid sarcastic remarks.
Snark may get you laughs, but it will also lose you friends.
11. Choose your life's mate carefully.
From this one decision will come 90 per cent of all your happiness or misery.
12. Make it a habit to do nice things for people who will never find out.
It's the giving that makes you happy. Not the credit.
13. Lend only those books you never care to see again.
Save yourself the frustration.
14. Never deprive someone of hope.
It might be all that they have.
15. When playing games with children, let them win.
Maybe not always...but enough to help them feel the joy of triumph.
16. Be romantic.
Because love makes the world go 'round.
17. Become the most positive and enthusiastic person you know.
It'll pay rich dividends.
18. Loosen up. Relax.
Except for rare life-and-death matters, nothing is as important as it first seems.
19. Don't allow the phone to interrupt important moments.
It's there for our convenience, not the caller's.
20. Be a good loser.
Or everyone will hate you.
21. Be a good winner.
Or everyone will hate you.
22. Think twice before burdening a friend with a secret.
Especially if you want it to remain a secret.
23. When someone hugs you, let them be the first to let go.
Unless the hug is unwanted.
24. Be humble.
A lot was accomplished before you were born.
25. Keep it simple.
26. Beware of the person who has nothing to lose.
And always help if you can.
27. Don't burn bridges.
You'll be surprised how many times you have to cross the same river.
28. Live your life so that your epitaph could read, "No Regrets."
Easier said than done...but try your best.
29. Be bold and courageous.
When you look back on life, you'll regret the things you didn't do more than the ones you did.
30. Never waste an opportunity to tell someone you love them.
Same reason as No. 16.
31. Remember no one makes it alone. Have a grateful heart and be quick to acknowledge those who helped you.
Same reason as No. 7.
32. Take charge of your attitude.
Don't let someone else choose it for you.
33. Visit friends and relatives when they are in hospital, even if you can only stay for a few minutes.
You won't regret it.
34. Begin each day with some of your favorite music.
Same reason as No. 4.
35. Once in a while, take the scenic route.
You'll often find more joy in the journey than the destination.
36. Answer the phone with enthusiasm and energy in your voice.
Same reason as No. 17.
37. Keep a note pad and pencil on your bed-side table.
Because the best ideas can strike at 3 a.m.
38. Show respect for every job, regardless of how trivial.
Because the job does not make the person.
39. Send your loved ones flowers. Think of a reason later.
Same reason as No. 16.
40. Make someone's day by paying the toll for the person in the car behind you.
You'll make your own day, too.
41. Become someone's hero.
Because everybody needs one.
42. Marry only for love.
It's the only way to survive the challenges to come.
43. Count your blessings.
It will make you happier.
44. Compliment the meal when you're a guest in someone's home.
This makes you happier, too.
45. Wave at the children on a school bus.
It will remind you that children are the future. And help them see that you know that, too.
46. Remember that 80 per cent of the success in any job is based on your ability to deal with people.
So if you haven't learned how, start now.
47. Don't expect life to be fair.
But no matter what, never lose hope.
11 Ancient Solutions for Modern Malaise
The Roman philosopher Seneca’s essay “On a Happy Life” is full of lessons that are as pertinent today as they were two millennia ago.
“All men, brother Gallio, wish to live happily,” wrote the Roman philosopher and statesman Lucius Annaeus Seneca to his brother around A.D. 58, “but are dull at perceiving exactly what it is that makes life happy.” Seneca may very well have based that assessment on himself. He was a happiness expert, writing throughout his life about the ancient concept of eudaemonia, which roughly means “living in agreement with nature,” or perhaps, in today’s language, “inner peace.” Yet his life was anything but peaceful.
Enjoy a year of unlimited access to The Atlantic—including every story on our site and app, subscriber newsletters, and more.
After experiencing years of severe health issues, Seneca was exiled from Rome under Emperor Claudius, then returned to tutor and later advise Emperor Nero, by whom he was first beloved and then accused (probably falsely) of conspiracy—and thus compelled to take his own life. As the creator of the website Daily Stoic, Ryan Holiday, remarked to me by email, “That he could even get out of bed in the morning, let alone smile, was a feat of sheer human endurance.”
No doubt all of this is more harrowing than what you endure in daily life—you thought you had a bad boss?—but perhaps you can relate nonetheless. You want to be happy and well, but your messy circumstances bite and gnaw at you relentlessly, distracting you from the habits of thought and action that could help you find enjoyment and remember the meaning in your life.
Seneca wrote his essay “On a Happy Life” during those difficult last years with Nero—written as advice to his brother, but no doubt advice to himself—on what one needs to do to maintain equanimity in the face of personal chaos. Every paragraph is a gem, and the whole thing is worth your time. But luckily for us, he also helpfully lists 11 of the most important lessons he believed one must follow to achieve peace. They are as pertinent today as they were two millennia ago.
Lesson 1: I will look upon death or upon a comedy with the same expression of countenance.
Seneca is not suggesting that you laugh at funerals or cry at comedies, nor is he saying that sadness and laughter are bad. He is simply exhorting you to manage your emotional extremes so they don’t manage you. And it’s great advice: In 2020, French researchers studied the relationship between an even state of mind and various measures of feeling and behavior. They found that equanimity predicted lower negative states such as rumination, catastrophising, and neuroticism.
Lesson 2: I will submit to labors, however great they may be, supporting the strength of my body by that of my mind.
One of the great lessons from modern research is that physical and intellectual fitness are central to a happy life. Two of the lifelong habits of older people who are both happy and well are continuous learning and healthy exercise. As an easy rule of thumb, read and walk each day—two activities that are as revolutionary today as they were in Seneca’s time. Or, if you are feeling really efficient, walk while listening to a book!
Lesson 3: I will despise riches when I have them as much as when I have them not; if they be elsewhere I will not be more gloomy; if they sparkle around me I will not be more lively than I should otherwise be: Whether Fortune comes or goes I will take no notice of her.
This lesson is much deeper than “Money doesn’t buy happiness.” Seneca’s assertion is that an attachment to riches will bring misery, and the research couldn’t support him more clearly. For example, writing in the journal Personality and Individual Differences in 2017, researchers showed that materialism can lower well-being and raise depression.
Lesson 4: I will view all lands as though they belong to me, and my own as though they belonged to all mankind.
This lesson expands on Lesson 3 to assert that misery comes not only from grasping for things but also from holding what one has too tightly. This idea is present in many religious and philosophical traditions. For example, it is akin to what Catholics call “solidarity”: the idea that we are all sisters and brothers, so (for example) my ownership of property is fundamentally one of stewardship for the greater good of all.
Lesson 5: I will so live as to remember that I was born for others, and will thank Nature on this account: for in what fashion could she have done better for me? She has given me alone to all, and all to me alone.
In other words, charity is a gift to the giver. Service to others is one of the easiest ways to get happier. Volumes of research attest to the fact that giving to charity and volunteering, spending money on others, and more radical acts such as donating blood and organs all raise well-being.
Lesson 6: Whatever I may possess, I will neither hoard it greedily nor squander it recklessly.
This lesson is a version of the old saying “All things in moderation,” but it goes beyond the claim that moderation is morally superior: In Seneca’s view, it also leads to inner peace. Once again, research seems to support the claim. It is easy to see this in cases such as drinking and eating, but moderation even in virtues is warranted, such that, for example, hard work does not become workaholism.
Lesson 7: I will think that I have no possessions so real as those which I have given away to deserving people: I will not reckon benefits by their magnitude or number, or by anything except the value set upon them by the receiver.
The idea here is that the true value of what I do is not how much it costs me, but how much it benefits you. For example, the true value of your work is not your salary but rather how much it helps others. Altruism won’t pay the rent, but if you take this lesson to heart, it can change your priorities, and maybe even lead you to a better job.
Lesson 8: I will do nothing because of public opinion, but everything because of conscience: Whenever I do anything alone by myself I will believe that the eyes of the Roman people are upon me while I do it.
This lesson is a twofer: first, to resist social comparison; second, to act in private the same as in public. The first lesson is a staple in the psychology literature, and probably explains in no small part why social media—in which we compare ourselves with strangers and friends constantly—is difficult for so many people’s well-being. The second lesson asserts that integrity and consistency lead to happiness—and that hypocrisy leads to unhappiness. Researchers have shown that the “self-perception of disingenuousness” harms our human need to see ourselves as authentic, consistent, and coherent.
Lesson 9: I will be agreeable with my friends, gentle and mild to my foes: I will grant pardon before I am asked for it, and will meet the wishes of honourable men halfway.
This ancient teaching—“Love your enemies,” in the biblical formation—lies behind many of the philosophies that seek to disrupt the tendency to hate our foes. “Love has within it a redemptive power,” Martin Luther King Jr. said in a 1957 sermon. “And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals.” In my own research, I have shown that loving across differences is not only practical; it can also be a source of immense joy.
Lesson 10: I will bear in mind that the world is my native city, that its governors are the gods, and that they stand above and around me, criticizing whatever I do or say.
This advice takes part two of Lesson 8 up a notch: I should act not just as if others are watching; I should act like God is watching. One study showed that priming believers and nonbelievers alike to think about God or associated concepts before engaging in an experiment in which they could voluntarily give money to a stranger or keep it for themselves induced more than twice as much generosity as when religious concepts were not introduced. When secular moral institutions such as “civic” and “jury” are primed, the effect is almost as great. And remember what we learned from Lesson 5: Such induced generosity will benefit not only the people you give to but you as well.
Lesson 11: Whenever either Nature demands my breath again, or reason bids me dismiss it, I will quit this life, calling all to witness that I have loved a good conscience, and good pursuits; that no one’s freedom, my own least of all, has been impaired through me.
This lesson exhorts us to consider the good of others as the way to accept our own death peacefully. And indeed, a 2014 study of dying cancer patients found that peaceful patients were “other-person centred. They saw in their illness opportunities to give to others, whether it was by encouraging friends, teaching grandchildren about life, or participating in clinical trials in order to help future patients.” Seneca himself is recorded to have died with complete equanimity, forced to take his own life but doing so calmly and while speaking of courage in life and death. Peter Paul Rubens’s famous painting The Death of Seneca shows the philosopher dying standing up, signifying the Roman ideal of virtus: valor, bravery, and character.
Wise as they sound, Seneca’s lessons can be difficult to implement. They contravene many of our natural impulses: to behave egotistically, to compare ourselves with others, to acquire as much as possible, to stay alive at any cost.
Seneca understood this tension full well and, alongside his rules, helpfully offered a secret formula for getting the benefits of these goals even if embodying them perfectly is impossible: try. “It is the act of a generous spirit to proportion its efforts not to its own strength but to that of human nature,” he wrote, “to entertain lofty aims, and to conceive plans which are too vast to be carried into execution even by those who are endowed with gigantic intellects.” These goals are not an exercise in futility but rather in effort and progress. The only way to achieve true peace of mind is by trying a little each day.
A chapter from “Come out the wilderness” by Bruce Kenrick, published by Collis Fontana Books, first issue 1952.
It was 1954. Six years had passed since the ﬁrst storefront church had been opened in East Harlem. Those years had been packed with discoveries which had shocked and inspired the Group; discoveries about East Harlem’s hidden riches, about life and compassion and God; discoveries which had sometimes overthrown assumptions which they had always held, and which left them asking such questions as ‘Does morality matter to God?’ The answers had come not so much through argument as through the harsh impact of events.
' Reach!‘ said the leader of the Parish youth group, levelling a .45 automatic at the storekeeper’s stomach. As the man raised his hands, the group’s secretary emptied the till, and then the two backed out of the doorway and raced off down the street.'
East Harlem’s ideas on morality were very different from those of the Parish ministers. Aside from a tiny minority whose strong moral code gave structure to their lives, most people were so poorly educated, so lacking in stable home background, and so inﬂuenced by the local climate of injustice and of rackets that they had no clear moral standards at all.
‘God don‘t mind if you sin now and then, Reverend. He just don’t want you to make a habit of it.’ The 40-year-old Puerto Rican woman was speaking to one of the pastors in her apartment on 104th Street. They had been discussing the question of stealing, but now the subject moved to the son of whom she was so proud. It seemed that although she was not married, she had very much wanted to have a child of her own. She prayed that God give her a baby, made friends with a married man, and eventually had a son by him. The minister thought that the matter was worrying her.
‘If you’ve sincerely repented . . .’ he began. ‘Repented?’ she cried. ‘I ain’t repented! I asked the Lord for him! He’s a gift from God!’
In such a situation, where do you begin? Maybe in suburbia you can begin with judgment: where men believe themselves respectable and righteous and religious, perhaps you begin where Christ began with the Scribes and Pharisees. But in East Harlem, with its broken reeds which could so easily be crushed, in such a fragile situation, where do you start? The Group believed they were discovering an answer; it had to be given again and again to innumerable puzzled questioners.
‘What do you do?‘ asked a student volunteer as the Parish workers sat around the farmhouse ﬁre during one of their monthly retreats. ‘What do you do when you drop in on the church youth canteen and ﬁnd a man lying dead drunk on the ﬂoor, and a bottle of whisky being passed from hand to hand? Does the church condone this?’
‘No, the church does not condone it,’ came the slow but decided reply. ‘That’s why we have a rule that no drunks will be allowed into church dances.’ The pastor hesitated, and then went on. ‘ But we are not primarily instruments of God's judgement . . . and neither was Christ. We can judge in preaching or in counselling—providing we’ve ﬁrst felt a greater judgment on ourselves as responsible for the social situation which produces these results. But our ministry is first one of acceptance. Our primary job is to communicate God’s forgiveness of such drunks as you saw in the church canteen. Don’t men like him stand a better chance of going straight inside the church than out‘? And isn’t it true that after what happened on Good Friday, the Church of God is open to all, no matter how they may live?’
No matter how they may live . . . One man who used to belong to the Parish was undoubtedly a convert, was not married to the mother of his children, would get drunk with depressing regularity, and rented a room in his apartment to a prostitute. ‘What do you do?’ the question persisted. And the answer of the group was becoming quite clear: ‘Christ didn’t come with a law book in his hand to bless only those who would obey it,’ said the pastor. ‘He came to save those who couldn’t save themselves. And this means that East Harlem's moral wrecks are simply the people who stand in the greatest need of the church's love. It means that we accept them exactly where they are and as they are.’
The discovery that their ministry had to involve unconditional acceptance of all men ‘exactly where they are and as they are ’ had been made by the Group as they faced three things. First, there was the background from which East Harlem's moral chaos sprang. Second, there was the conventional churches’ futile response in terms of condemnation. And third, there was the fact that this response was a ﬂat contradiction of the Gospel.
The background to East Harlem’s moral turmoil had had made it perfectly plain to the Group that they themselves were in no position whatever to condemn. They thought of a boy whose father was a drunkard and whose mother was mentally unstable; he had been expelled from school for bad behaviour and was trying to forget his problems by taking heroin. There was the seventeen year old girl whose mother had left home ‘for a few days’ with a man friend, who had since been caring single handed for three small children, and now gone out of her mind. There was Charlie, a young man whose father was a thief and whose mother was a prostitute; he won recognition at home by what he could steal from the stores. And most of East Harlem’s adult thieves and addicts and near demented individuals were what they were for reasons like these, reasons altogether beyond their control. To judge such people was like abusing a baby for being born a cripple.
Yet judgement seemed to be the traditional church’s first word in East Harlem. It almost seemed as if the first concern was not to bring the lost sheep home but to keep the lost sheep out in cast they impaired the church’s reputation for respectability. ‘But this attitude that the church is only for respectable people would exclude most of its finest saints,’ wrote Don Benedict. ‘No one in his senses would call St Francis a respectable man, for what respectable man would rummage in a garbage can for his breakfast, and what respectable man would embrace a filthy, blasphemous leper? Clearly, Francis was not respectable. And equally clearly, he was redeemed. And the church realises that it has a greater desire for a respectable community than for a redeemed one, it must also realise that its whole attitude to morality, and its whole conception of the Gospel of Christ, is being called into question.’
The self deception behind this ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude lay in the fact that those in the church who condemned the drunk and the harlot were by no means innocent themselves. A girl who was a Sunday School teacher in a near by church became pregnant, and Bill Webber over heard the matter being discussed by some of her fellow members. ‘It’s shameful!’ declared a Puerto Rican lady. ‘And her a leader in the church!’ the speaker had five children by the man with whom she had been living for six years; she had yet to take the step of getting married. This was one of a thousand instances which had forced the Group to the conclusion that East Harlem’s prodigals were avoiding their Father’s house not because of their Father at all but because of their elder brothers, who were Christian, immoral, without pity and without mercy. It was perfectly clear that of those who applied the rigorous ‘Christian’ standard, many kept it merely because it was expedient to do so (that was the way to keep your job and to gain social prestige),and even then they kept it only in those areas of life which were open to inspection by others. In other words, they themselves were guilty men. ‘And,’ asked Benedict, ‘if God were as harsh in his judgement of them as they were in their judgement of others, would they themselves be saved?’
Nevertheless, they were harsh in their judgement, as many a man like Charlie the thief had discovered for himself. Charlie had been to church once in his life. He had gone, as he said, ‘tho hear about Christ’, but instead he heard about judgement. He had gone seeking Christ, but, finding the Law, he departed for good without Christ. Such men were being hardened by the church in their lives of crime and wretchedness; the judgement of the church had separated them from the one community that ought to be able to help them.
An elder in a local Pentecostal church was a woman with a twenty year old son called Tiny. She knew that he was using heroin, and she had followed the example of her pastor by bitterly condemning him and warning him of judgement to come. One day she found Tiny’s injection kit hidden above the toilet.
' You been usin‘ that stuff again!’ she cried.
‘You ain't see me use nothin‘,‘ said Tiny sullenly.
‘I may not see you use nothin',' she shouted, ‘but I can tell when you done it. D'you hear? I can tell!’
And Tiny lost control. ‘You see how you is?’ he yelled. ‘You talkin', and ravin’ like that at me. . . . You made me use it!’
Such tragic incidents as this convinced the Group that judgment was useless. The moralistic approach would separate them from those they wanted to befriend; it also presupposed the acceptance of a moral code to which, in fact, many East Harlem residents were totally indifferent. As they wrote some time later: ‘If we say, “ Don’t commit adultery,” the answer may well be, “ Why not?” And if we go on to say. “it’s against the Ten Commandments," the reply is “The Ten Commandments was a punk movie, anyway.”’
So the approach by way of morality was rejected, partly because it was useless, partly because it was irrelevant, but above all because the pastors slowly realised that morality (with which their own faith had always been involved) often stood in stubborn opposition to the Gospel. After all, they argued, the object of morality is to preserve the status quo, and the object of the Gospel is often to overturn the status quo (‘these that have turned the world upside down’). Morality exalted the Law over the Gospel; it forgot that David did not lose the Spirit of God even though he had committed both adultery and murder; it said to the East Harlem girl who had never known her father, who had seen her mother living with several men, and who had no resources or reasons for resisting the offer of affection which left her carrying a baby ----to such a love starved creature, morality declared, ‘You can’t join the church until you marry the father of your child.’ To the girl, morality seemed a cruel mockery. To the Group it seemed a cheap betrayal of the agony of Christ, for he had died ‘not to condemn the world, but that the world, through him, might be saved.’ On the one hand, the church seemed to say to the world, ‘Christ alone can put your life straight’; and on the other hand, it said to the addicted convert, ‘But before you can belong to the church, you’ll have to put your own life straight.’ It proclaimed from the pulpit, ‘The Cross is the power of God unto salvation,’ and then it directed men to find their power not in the Cross but in themselves.
The pastors saw that this was a plain denial of the Gospel, a denial of the fact that God’s attitude to men simply does not depend on men’s attitude to God. They thought of Paul on the Damascus road when Christ stopped him in his tracks, forgave him outright, and made him an apostle before he even had a chance to repent. They remembered Christ hanging on the Cross, praying for his unrepentant crucifiers: ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ These were events far removed from the world of morality, a world whose irrelevance lay in the fact that it had no power at all. By contrast, the Group declared, the Gospel is a Gospel of power. It is not a demand but a gift; it is not the Ten Commandments, nor the Sermon on the Mount, but only through the power of the living Christ do the Sermon and Commandments become possibilities. God’s Good News, they insisted, is not that he calls men to morality but that he calls them to Christ, to the Christ who accepts mean little misers like Zacchaeus, and by that acceptance brings his strength into their lives.
This means that there was an answer to the question of the woman who opened the door to the visiting pastor on 100th Street: she knew the he was aware of the fact that she was living with someone else’s husband; she imagined he had come to condemn her; she frowned as she asked, ‘Why do you visit me?’ the pastor was silent for a while before he said, ‘If the church were only interested in saints, I guess it would have no place for me.’ He paused again, reflectively; and then: ‘It seems to me that God is more interested in loving us than in condemning us.’ The woman hesitated, and then managed a faint smile as she said, ‘Wont you come in?’
Such a woman, like every other person in East Harlem, was already loved and accepted by Christ; she might not know it, but she already belonged to him. This was the bed-rock Gospel fact on which the pastor’s attitude was based. Christ, they read, ‘is above all and through all and in all’: to reject the pimp and the prostitute was to reject the risen Christ; to accept them was to accept him who said, ‘ As you did to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ ‘We classify men good and bad’, protested Benedict in a sermon. ‘We range them before our judgement seat and say, “You are a saint. And you are just a man. But you are a sinner. All this group are sinners. You. And you. And . . .“ But there we stop. For this man standing down among the sinners has nail prints in his hands . . . He looks at us. We feel uneasy on our throne. We are afraid. He’s judging us. . . .’
‘So the Body of Christ, the church,’ wrote the Group, ‘must accept those who drink, use narcotics, steal, have out-of-wedlock sex experience. The church is set in the midst of the world not to protect its life but to give its life away, that men may know the Good News of a God who loves them.‘
All this exposed the church to the acid judgment of its critics: ‘Look at the people they let in! What kind of church is this?’ It was a church that was soon to discover much more about Christian ethics. But at least it was a church that was earning the same abuse that Jesus bore when he accepted racketeers and prostitutes. And at least it was a church that was bearing fruit, as even little children testiﬁed.
The Sunday School class had been asked to describe the kind of people who come to church. ‘Big people come to church,’ said one. ‘Children come to church.’ said’ another. ‘Fat people come to church,‘ said a third. 'Yes,’ a small boy‘s voice piped up, surely delighting his Maker s heart. ‘and bad people come to church.’
The shifting sands of COVID and our uncertain future has a name – liminality
During the pandemic, lots of us, myself included, are struggling to live in the “now”. That “now”, with all its uncertainty, doesn’t look like the life we used to live or the life we imagine we will return to.
That experience has a name — liminality.
Understanding liminality and its origins can provide ways to better understand the foggy, ambiguous space we currently inhabit.
What is liminality?
European anthropologist Arnold van Gennep pioneered the study of liminality in the early 20th century. His work on liminal spaces focused on the rites of passage we transition through in life.
Since then, the term liminality has been used to describe the paths we navigate when faced with life events. These are the times when we are in a metaphorical waiting room between one life stage and another.
I’ve been studying liminality throughout my career working with families of missing people.
These families, waiting for missing people to come home, can also experience a sense of liminality. They can be stuck between certainty and uncertainty about knowing what happened to their loved ones and learning to live without answers.
What families of missing people taught me is what helps us survive uncertainty is reflecting on our own capacity to tolerate “not knowing”.
An everyday example might be sitting an exam and waiting for the outcome. You might be unable to plan ahead, and are balancing thoughts of passing or failing, all at the same time.
What’s this to do with COVID?
During COVID, how we believe our lives “should” work ceases to exist. And we’re left with uncertainty.
We ask ourselves, others or Google “how long will the pandemic last?”, “when will lockdown end” or “when can we safely travel?”
Liminality shows up in other ways, with the:
lost life-stage rituals such as the sudden end of the school year, but without the formals or graduation ceremonies
newfound uncertainty about daily tasks we once took for granted. “I just need to pop to the shops” is now an exercise in decisions and questions about masks, social distancing and what’s essential
grandparents who haven’t cuddled their first grandchild and made that transition to a new stage of their life. They may live between saying “well at least we are healthy” while quietly lamenting those missed opportunities.
There are real health impacts
The space between the life we had and the life we potentially will be able to live can cause us distress. And no amount of Zoom trivia, Uber Eats delivery or walking around the block can satisfy us.
Liminality during COVID has also impacting our health and well-being in other ways.
People with eating disorders have noted an increase in behaviours, as a coping tool, when faced with uncertainty. Diabetes educators have noted increased isolation and disconnection from usual routines can impact how diabetes is managed.
But the liminal space can also provide breathing room to learn to live with uncertainty and overcome what scares us.
How to cope with uncertainty
To manage uncertainty, individually and collectively, we need to reflect on how we receive information.
A US study found one place we go to for information, for certainty in a pandemic, is science. However, given science changes as research progresses, public health messaging can also change. So this repetitive looking for certainty, in an uncertain world, makes it difficult to learn to live with COVID.
We know long periods of uncertainty can have impacts on our capacity to cope. Without the strong foundation of certainty or “knowns” in our life, the reshaping of the world, from the pandemic, can and will be unsettling.
I’m not suggesting abandoning science, far from it. But those not at the forefront of designing vaccines, studying epidemiological trends or treating COVID patients might like to rethink our relationship with certainty.
Learning to “go with” all the twists and turns that come with rapidly changing science and the resultant uncertainty is what we need. We might enhance our lives by accepting liminality in how we navigate each day, to learn to tolerate ambiguity.
It is not simple to accept the unknown. However in this pandemic, learning to accept public health advice (and the science that underpins it) might change is part of living through a worldwide event.
Not knowing what next week will look like and finding ways to “tolerate ambiguity” is where we’re at right now. We can help ourselves by finding daily routines within our control, small moments of the day where we connect with a person, nature, or an activity that reminds us where we are and who we are.
We also need space to safely grieve the small and big losses COVID has created. We need to accept that, globally, we are in the liminal space between here and there.
Hopefully, “there” is when life returns to somewhat normal and when popping down to the shops means just that.
Sarah Wayland Senior Lecturer Social Work, University of New England