Fourth Sunday in Advent at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Micah 5:2-5, Heb 10:5-10, Lk 1:39-45 ]
During our noon meal at New Melleray we're listening to a new book titled, “The Girl with Seven Names”, published last July. It's a sad and yet beautiful story of a teenage North Korean defector, Hyeonseo Lee, who escaped in 1997. She had to give up everything, even her own identity. She now lives in South Korea, and is a voice of freedom for the people she left behind.
Her story reminded me about a Korean television crew that came to New Melleray some years ago. They wanted to make a film about our monastic life to show on Christmas Eve in South Korea. Ninety percent of Koreans are not Catholics, but Christmas Eve is a still a special night even for them. Because for over thirty years after the Korean War no one was allowed on the streets after midnight, except on Christmas Eve.
After Korea was divided, the first president of South Korea was a Christian. He made Christmas a national holiday and he lifted the curfew on Christmas Eve so that Catholics could celebrate Midnight Mass. For non-Christians, it was the only night in the year when they could be out late and not have to work the next day. So, they celebrated by having noisy parties all night long.
The producers of the television program wanted to present our quiet, unhurried, prayerful way of life in contrast to the hectic life and parties of so many in their country. Yet, Christmas Eve really is a time for parties to celebrate the Good News. When Mary, the first missionary, set out for the hill country of Judah, to share the Good News with her cousin, she wanted to tell it upon the mountains, over the hills, and everywhere. When Elizabeth, the first person to be evangelized, heard Mary's greeting she cried out with a great shout of joy. There was leaping, and dancing, and songs of praise: the first Christmas party. From this small beginning between a young teenager and an elderly woman, the story of God's wonderful works in Jesus Christ began to transform the world.
The people of Korea are a unique example of the transforming power of the Christmas Story. Missionaries could not bring the Good News to Korea, as Mary did to Elizabeth, because its borders were closed to foreigners for several hundred years. It was called the hermit kingdom. But one day in 1603 wise men, like the Magi, traveled from Korea to Peking, China. There they found the Christ Child wrapped in the linen sheets of books written by the first Jesuit missionaries, Mateo Ricci and Ferdinand Verbiest. These new wise men from the little hermit kingdom carried the Word of God home with them. Over the next two hundred years a small community of Christians slowly grew to 4,000 members, without ever seeing a priest.
And then the slaughter of the Innocents began. For the next hundred years Christians in Korea endured wave after wave of persecution. Nothing reveals the seriousness of Christianity in contrast to the frivolity of the world as much as martyrdom. When the child in Elizabeth's womb grew up, Herod cut off his head. When the child in Mary's womb grew up, he was crucified. When the Church in Korea grew to 23,000, over 8,000 were put to death, one out of every three persons. But the Church in Korea continues to grow: there were 150,000 by 1950, and almost six million Catholics today.
Mary's response to the angel changed the world. The way a handful of Korean wise men responded to the story of Christ that they found in China changed the lives of millions of Koreans today. And that is how it will always be. The way each of us responds to the Good News influences the lives of others, maybe thousands, and sometimes even millions of people. The influence of our personal response to Christ is a great grace for the whole world. Now that is worth celebrating with a Christmas party! And the best celebration of all is our Eucharist.
Like The Girl with Seven Names, we have received a new name, not to conceal our identity but to reveal our true identity as children of God. And like her, we are a voice for true freedom, the joy of belonging to the best country in the universe, the kingdom of God.