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Christmas in February

By Fr. Rick Frechette

Fr. Frechette, a priest-doctor (and hero of our time) who’s worked for a generation in Haiti, wrote this Christmas reflection last December, but it will always be in season.

HOW BEAUTIFUL UPON THE MOUNTAINS ARE THE FEET of the one who brings good tidings, who proclaims peace; who brings the good news of salvation; who announces to Zion, Your God reigns! (Isaiah 52:7)

St. Nicholas surely had this kind of feet. His pilgrim journeys not only gladdened the heart of humanity in his day, but his reputation was so great that it has carried his name forward for 1700 years, to our own day.

Unlike many saints whose popularity is confined to a region or a country, St. Nicholas is one of the few saints known and loved in almost all the world. Even in his secular form, he represents wisdom, kindness and generosity, as should any present day successor of the apostles, known to us as bishops.

St. Nicholas was able to live out a vibrant and hopeful message in a time of great suffering, controversy and confusion. The gladness of his news, when contrasted with very dark human experiences of his day, is like a bright star in the black velvet, midnight sky.

Our Christian tradition makes no denial of darkness, not even when the extra lights of the holidays do their best to make the darkness vanish in an artificial way. Sometimes the darkness we must fight is inside where Christmas tree lights can never reach.

Recently in the vast Port-au-Prince slum called Cite Soleil, a sickly young woman asked me to help her. Her name was Solange. She was so small and slight, I was surprised when she told me she was in her twenties. When I listened to her heart, the gushy murmurs made me picture her heart valves as thick, shredded sponges. I was sure she had valve damage from previous rheumatic fever, which is still very prevalent here. A cardiologist friend confirmed this and thought surgery was still possible, so I arranged for Solange to to have an operation done in the Dominican Republic.

A few days after Solange left, we had bad rains, then terrible rains, then worse rains still, and then a full stop flood. We went into high gear, helping thousands of flooded neighbors get out of the water to shelter. While in the midst of all the flood chaos, I got a call from the Dominican Republic saying that Solange had died during the night. They didn’t know what to do with her body or how to let her family in Haiti know that she was dead.

So we handled a disaster within a disaster, using cell phones during flood relief to arrange the return of Solange’s body to Haiti by airplane, and to call the family to come to find us in the floods so we could give the news personally and not by phone.

My head started to spin. The family will probably blame us for her death. They will want money. They will say I should have left her alone, that the trip was too tiring for her. When the body comes on the plane there will be difficulties getting it through immigration. Bribes will be required. The family will want us to pay for the funeral, etc, etc, etc…

Fatigue, frustration, and cynicism know how to twist the mind and heart. They are the weapons of the Antichrist.

Having worked myself up into an angry and defensive posture, when the family asked us to drive the body all the way to Thiotte (a six hour drive), I recited in full voice a list of everything we had already done for Solange, and what it cost in terms of money and effort. Soon the force of my words started to fade. There was her body, in front of me, in a simple coffin. There had been no problems at immigration, no bribes to pay. Just compassionate officials who helped things move rapidly for the grieving family of paupers. I realized with embarrassment that I should be using my mouth for blessing her body, for praying for her family standing before me in their grief, and not for my unsolicited defense. The family was kind and understanding. No demands. No blame. They were only asking for a ride to Thiotte. If we couldn’t help, they would try to manage another way.

Then I was completely caught off guard. The family told me they were going home to Thiotte because their simple home was destroyed by the water and mud of the floods, and they had no place to go with Solange. They had no place but home. Their life was all loss. Then, they thanked me for sending Solange to the Dominican Republic. If she hadn’t gone, they said, she would have had a terrible death in the water and mud.

Who had the sicker heart? Me or Solange? How did St. Nicholas, and so many great people through the ages, keep the right heart in the face of danger and stress and disaster? They had a special gift, a keen intelligence as to what was really happening inside people and in their true situations, that could not be blunted or distorted by preconceptions or habits of response based on fatigue or cynicism. What a great gift to ask for at Christmas, from the real Santa Claus -- a keen, intelligent heart.

Esmine was kidnapped last Thursday. Yes, it is all starting up again. After coming out of the bank with a good bit of money to pay for the schooling of her three young children, she was grabbed by strangers and gone. How? Had someone inside the bank tipped off the ones outside? Was she betrayed? Days pass, negotiating with kidnappers for money the family did not have. They were threatening to kill her. These are not idle threats, as two kidnapped children had been killed during the previous ten days. I put up half the ransom for Esmine. I even went to do the drop off for the kidnappers. “Leave the money at the third telephone pole, on the left, after the bridge.”

How I despised what the kidnappers were doing, when I remembered the children that were killed by them and how they died, when I thought of Esmine’s distress and her distraught children at home. I even felt anger against Esmine, for getting kidnapped in the first place and somehow pulling me into it. I wanted to hide out by the pole and beat them when they came for the money. “Lord, keep our hearts from becoming like those of our oppressors!” It really is all about heart, a struggle with darkness in the heart.

Emerline was released at four in the morning, and came to see me at the hospital right away. She had been beaten, she was humiliated, she was full of fear of the streets, of society, of the future. She rolled on the ground in front of me, crying out her grief, but also sputtering out words of thanks for our help in freeing her. I couldn’t get her to stand up, and I didn’t have the heart to look at her on the ground so defeated, so I looked to the sky above. The moon was a bright crescent, but its full round border was visible by the aurora of the far off sun. And, to the left of the crescent in all its glory, was the morning star.

I understood immediately. The moon was Esmine. Her glory, her godlight, was diminished by the dark evil of her captivity and humiliation, but was faintly still there. The crescent was the part of her that still enjoyed light, and somehow promised a healing light for the remaining silhouette. God was the aurora, the sun underneath and unseen, a subtle light illuminating Esmine’s wound that could be healed by hope. And the morning star? That’s the best part. The morning star is you, and me, and anyone, anywhere, at any while, who stands in solidarity with the one who is in darkness and the shadow of death -- to offer even imperfect or limited light...

You can’t believe how hard it is to bury the dead. No one wants them. We bury about 100 a week. Their poverty and humiliation still hound them after they are dead. Their disgraceful condition, their lack of a spot even to drop dead on, their exile from a final resting place, are haunting realities. When we recently brought a score of corpses of the destitute to their final resting place last week, we were met by a posse of peasants who demanded money and would not let us pass to the twenty graves we had dug. There was quite a fight between my team, who were there to manage all the coffins and the graves, and the peasants who insisted they could make a fortune on that land by saving it for a cell phone company antenna. They insisted their deal with the company would be ruined by our bones.

I knew it was State land. I knew the dead have been dumped there for 30 years. But I had no energy left to fight and I called for the gravediggers, the team of 20 pall bearers, and all the coffins to go to a place in Cite Soleil the Mayor said we could have for funerals, but which we had not yet prepared for lack of resources. My team refused to leave and wanted to defend the dead. The small music band that always comes to play for the funerals (I call them the “other” grateful dead) struck up a lively tune. The fight was on. The police soon came, and went to the highest bidder…me. Yes, I could outdo the protesting peasants -- gas money, a little money for lunch, a little extra for Christmas. The dead now rested in peace.

The human heart beats in darkness, against darkness, and easily becomes darkness. But it longs for light, true light. At Christmas we celebrate the presence of a new heart beating among us. Small at first, but over a very few years it grows in strength, wisdom and grace. If we want, this sacred heart beats first next to ours, then with ours, and then in ours. Each beat generates light, the true light that the darkness cannot overcome. Darkness loses its power, and falls from its throne as victor. It becomes simply “opponent.” Even its opposition is self defeating, since it only increases longing for the Sacred Heart, whose power and light we come to share. This power and light reveal His name, but we find we have always known it. His name is “Wonderful, Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

May it be ever in our hearts and on our lips.

From February, 2008