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Christmas is about what is right

Lately, the news has really weighed me down. It is heartbreaking to see the raging fires in California night after night and take in scenes of ravaged land, smoldering ruins and broken lives.

There are so many shootings that the less sensational ones hardly catch our attention anymore. How did mass shooting become "less sensational"?

Migrants seeking reprieve from gang violence and unspeakable brutality will be turned away with the threats of family separation, tear gas and possibly lethal force. The climate report issued by the federal government spares no words on the devastating consequences to our well-being.

New reports of escalating opioid addiction, alcohol-related deaths and anxiety among young people point to human pain of epidemic proportions.

With all these in my heart, I approach the Advent season. How does the Christmas promise of a peaceable kingdom, joy and hope reconcile with the realities of our bungling, fears, self-interest and capacity for destruction?  

Yet this is the world that Christ chooses to make a home in, I sense not despite the suffering we both inflict and experience, but because of it. The conditions of Christ's birth were defined by a political edict for a census to update the count for tax collection; no hospitality was extended to his parents who ended up in a cave; a king sent the family into exile upon ordering a murderous purge to preserve his power.

But Christ's birth is not a statement of what is wrong in the world. Rather, it is a statement of what is right. He came to sanctify the world. Thus, we and everyone else (including those we disagree with and find reprehensible) are made holy.

Regardless of what we have or have not done, he finds each of us worthy: He claims each of us as his brother, sister, friend, co-worker, beloved. Like us, life could bring him down; he would weep for his pain, the loss of a friend and the suffering he foresaw. But he also celebrated feasts, shared meals and threw the banquet that still continues today.

Never mind the squalor and oppression in the background of his birth; in the foreground are his earthly father who chose to protect his betrothed despite the perception of betrayal, and his mother who accepted whatever came because it came from God.

In Jesus, God has made himself love among us and in us. Even a French wine merchant recognized transcendence when he penned the verses in "O Holy Night": "Long lay the world in sin and error pining. Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth. ... Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother."

People often lament that Hallmark and its compatriots got Christmas wrong by over-romanticizing the stable birth and the angelic child. I think they got it right: How can we overdo a depiction of divine love? Beauty extraordinaire?

Our gift-giving may not always be prudent, but it is our attempt to explicitly express love and tenderness for the other. We may be too tired to take note, but our making everything special — home, baking, greetings and letters — is to not let God's birth pass as just another day. We try to create magic for children perhaps as our own assertion that life cannot be suppressed by worries and disappointments, but sparkles with the joy and hope of God in us.

Hang another string of lights as a statement of the light of God that dispels the darkness. We are not just our failings. Our stories have not ended. Emmanuel: God is with us; he has not left us to ourselves.

Woo is distinguished president's fellow for global development at Purdue University and served as the CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services from 2012 to 2016.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018