By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published December 23, 2014
There is a strip mall not far from the monastery. I was there a week or so before Christmas. Most of the stores are vacant and have been that way for a long time. The “For Lease” signs in the windows are faded. I parked the car and walked around a bit. I looked in a few windows and the views were all pretty much the same—gatherings of dust, empty coffee cups on the floor, dismantled shelves, scraps of paper.
When I walked back to my car I noticed something strange. All the tall lampposts were decorated for Christmas. Each one had a variation of a Christmas theme. Some had big foam Santa Clauses. Others had silver bells and red and green ribbons, all covered with glitter that sparkled in the sunlight. The big parking lot was almost empty of cars. I wondered about the decorations. I suppose that each year they are put up on the lampposts, even if there are no shoppers, no stores, no Christmas music streaming from loudspeakers.
I suppose that one very important dimension of Christmas thrives on fullness. I know that there are malls, restaurants, churches, banks and credit card companies that thrive during the Christmas season. They promise the best that this season can bring, with bows and ribbons, discounts galore, deferred payments and Christmas bonuses. But there is another dimension to Christmas that draws near to places that are empty, deserted and in need of the hope that only the meaning of Christmas can bring.
Emptiness gnaws at us, like a hunger that we are incapable of satisfying, of filling, with our own resources. And yet this expectation rises in the human heart at this time of the year. Maybe a good place to ponder this dimension is an abandoned strip mall, a place off the busy and thriving places of the Christmas map, a place where the only music that can be made is a Christmas carol as it plays on the car radio or goes through one’s mind as the emptiness waits for a fullness that may be a long time in coming.
I am listening to the radio as I am stringing these words along. Over 130 children were killed in an attack on a school by the Taliban. It happened in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. It is one of many tragic stories that ride the airwaves alongside the carols of good cheer and wondrous gifts to come. It is hard for me to separate the bad news from the good.
Seen from a place far above us, the earth must look like a beautiful place, a place where city lights twinkle back at the light of the stars and the vast oceans glisten as the tides rise and fall. The wounds borne by its people cannot be seen. And nothing at all seems to be crippled by the ache of emptiness. But upon a closer look, the earth and its inhabitants struggle to fill the emptiness that hollows the heart and deadens the mind.
There are lights at this time of the year. Lights on trees, lights on homes, lights in churches, synagogues, and in gatherings of the faithful all over the earth. These, too, can be seen from afar. And Scripture tells us that a Child was found by three Wise Men who followed the moving light of a star across a vast desert, and when it settled above a little town, they knew the Child awaited them. And they worshipped him and brought him gifts.
It is the Light of that Child that makes everything different, makes of all things not what they seem to be. For this Light that is Life, when brought to bear upon the darkest corners of human life, promises that there will be redemption—that the light of goodness, of God, will overcome whatever darkness we see about us. The Light will fill our emptiness, and we will someday learn not to assuage our emptiness with excess, with violence, with the murder of the innocent.
I like to think that the lights and decorations of that little strip mall are okay, even though no one comes to the place. For I like to think that our lives are kind of like that mall. We wander in the midst of a poorly decorated world, a world like a half-baked Christmas awaiting a crowd. But if you pull off the road and into the mall, and think just a bit, and maybe pray, you will better know why God came to us as one of us. He can be most clearly seen in the empty and abandoned places of life, places that we normally avoid when sales are non-existent and the frenzied crowds at the mega-malls.
And in the silence of that little empty mall, his message is barely a whisper, but it is clear: Christmas is for all, the rich and the poor, the empty and half-hearted, as free gift, and it is eternal, and no darkness will overcome it. But you have to pull off the highway just a bit, and stay for a while in a place that life seems to have passed by. God is waiting there, as he waits everywhere, amidst the lonely decorations and the row of closed stores—a place that looks to be waiting for something real good to happen, when in fact, it already has, a “Big Time” arrival, from afar.
Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery web store at www.abbeystore.com.