Fourth Sunday of Advent, Dec. 24
[Scripture Readings: Micah 5:2-5, Heb 10:5-10, Lk 1:39-45]
Last month a television crew from Korea — Shin Seongwook, Shim Seunghyun, Lee Kyungsu, and Doo Seokgu — came to New Melleray to do a program about our monastic way of life to show on Christmas Eve. Although most Koreans are not Christians, Christmas Eve is a special night for them. For more than thirty years after the Korean War no one was allowed on the streets after midnight, except on Christmas Eve.
When Korea was divided, the first president of South Korea was a Christian. He made Christmas a national holiday even though Korea was predominately Buddhist. He also lifted the curfew on Christmas Eve, allowing the small Catholic population to celebrate Midnight Mass. But for most Koreans, not being Christians, it was a night for loud parties and drinking, a night to forget about the threat of invasion from the North. They could be out late and they did not have to work the next day. So, they celebrated by having noisy parties all night long.
The producers of the Sunday Special television program about New Melleray wanted to present our quiet, unhurried, prayerful life as a contrast to the competition and speed that is so widespread in Korea, especially in contrast to the superficiality of raucous Christmas Eve parties.
Yet, Christmas is a time for parties, for the fullest, deepest joy of which we are capable, because Christ came to save us from a danger much greater than war, the danger of losing our heavenly homeland and being separated from God forever. The announcement of the angel Gabriel to Mary set her heart on fire with wonder and joy: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. Of his kingdom their will be no end.”
Mary, the first missionary, set out for a distant place — the hill country of Judah, a four day’s journey from Nazareth, 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 of a young teenager with an elderly woman, the story of the wonderful works of God in Jesus Christ began to transform the world.
The people of Korea are a unique example of the transforming power of the Christmas Story. Most are not Christians, but they are like good soil, very receptive to the Word of God when it is planted in their hearts. 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. Instead, like the Magi, wise men from Korea, in 1777, went to the nearest Bethlehem, Peking, China, where they found the Christ Child wrapped in the linen sheets of books written by Jesuit missionaries. We do not know what happened to the original Magi, but these modern wise men from the little “hermit kingdom” carried the Word of God home with them to study Christianity. Christ was born in their hearts by reading and prayer. Over the next 15 years this small community grew to 4,000 members before the first priest was able to enter Korea secretly from China.
And then the slaughter of the Innocents began. For almost a hundred years they 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. The Church in Korea continued to grow: 50,000 by 1900, 150,000 by 1950. Almost three million by 1990. And in the last ten years another million Koreans have become Catholics.
Last month men again came from the East. Their journey half way around the world to the hill country along the Mississippi valley took two days — not by camels, but by flying through the air. Their Bethlehem was New Melleray, a house of bread entirely sweetened by the honey of Christ’s presence. They found the Christ child in human mangers, the hearts of monks. And today they told the story to millions.
Mary’s response to the angel changed the world. The way a handful of Korean wise men responded to the story of Christ they found in China has 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 may influence the lives of thousands, and sometimes millions of people over the centuries. The consequences or our personal responses to Christ can become a great grace for the world. Now that is worth celebrating with a Christmas party! And the best celebration of all is our Eucharist.