Home. Hearth. Family. Friends. The four nouns, individually or in combination, evoke the spirit of Advent and Christmas, when Convivium readers will receive this issue.
Fittingly, they are also theme words for many of the articles from the diverse writers in this last number edition of Convivium for 2013.
All of them, of course, are vital to the ideal of conviviality that editor-in-chief Father Raymond J. de Souza and I, along with our colleagues at Cardus, set out to foster with the launch,—two years ago already—of a magazine devoted to fostering faith in our common life.
One of the central images we settled on was that of the welcoming table surrounded by good friends and loving family, making all assembled feel right at home. How could such a picture be considered complete unless lit by a cheery fire in the hearth? For how many of us do these elements complete the picture of Christmas joy that we carry in our heads?
Yet the articles in this issue remind us that precisely because home, hearth, family and friends are constituent aspects of joy, they come also with a sorrowing side. Paradoxically, sorrow redeems joy by offering itself as salvation from sentimentality. This is made particularly evident during the Advent-Christmas season, which both opens and completes the Christian redemptive schema.
Christmas, of course, is the necessary condition for Easter. Birth begets blood. But even within the nativity narrative itself, a cycle of sorrow from joy is already at work. Mary's movement from Magnificat to manger shadows her Son's journey from God-man to Golgotha. At the moment Christ the King is born, He and His parents are, in fact, utterly and exactly bereft of home, hearth, family and friends. Father de Souza notes in his Sea to Sea column (Friends at the Stable, p. 48), that Mary the Mother of God and her husband, Joseph, had, at best, the company of a few animals in the stable or cave to keep them warm.
Such raggedness, such wretchedness, such humiliation comes at the moment Eternity bends into history to redeem all of humanity. Here we are at the heart of the Christmas—and so the Christian—message that stands against what Richard Bastien calls the "naïve, simplistic, utilitarian" understanding of suffering and joy.
Such gross misunderstanding, Bastien con-tends in his debate with atheist philosopher Alistair Thomson (Faith and Fantasy p. 8), dogmatically insists that we maximize happiness only by minimizing suffering.
"How naive!" Bastien writes. "The fact is that suffering and joy are in some mysterious way inseparable. The joy of giving life is inseparable from the suffering of childbirth. Doing a good piece of work provides both satisfaction and pain. Listening to good music is pleasant because it evokes something that we long for but cannot grasp. We love to eat but must refrain from eating too much."
As our burgeoning Christmas waistlines and the mega-billion dollar diet industry together attest, the joy of cooking is conjoined with the sorrowful sin of gluttony if we stay at the convivial table too long. As Anna-Liza Kozma writes in her reflection on journalist Rod Dreher's memoir (Steadfast Acts of Ordinary Faith, p. 19), family itself around that table can constitute an emotionally and spiritually fracturing force if the conditions are right—or wrong.
Dreher, she tells us, ultimately discovered the great Chestertonian truth that you not only can, but must go home again. But it is a truth of little immediate joy to Kozma and those like her whose native soil has become a memory of dust.
"Where is the good life to be found for those of us whose families are divided or itinerant or exiled? Those of us who have no homestead to return to? No generations of good deeds to cash in? Perhaps for us, for me, with family flung across various continents, the lesson (of Dreher's memoir) is a little different. We immigrants must find our community where we can. We are not to underestimate the value of digging in where we find ourselves." Geographic exile is hard enough ground to dig against. Ostracism from peers in a professional calling is, in its own way, an even more painful fate because the geography from which we are cast out remains cruelly omnipresent to us. For Montreal cancer researcher Dr. Mark Basik, the model of en-durance before such cruelty is Dr. Jérôme Lejeune, the globally renowned geneticist who discovered the source of Down's syndrome yet was blacklisted by his medical peers for his implacable opposition to abortion (Science and Sainthood, p 15).
Lejeunes joyful response was to find the expression of God's love in the birth of every child, even those whose chromosomes mark them as a source of sorrow to a simplistic, utilitarian world. In Basik's wonderful description:
As Pope John Paul II said, Lejeune's sense of responsibility was complete. He became the advocate of his patients. He…warned his (medical) team members, "I will be forced to publicly take a stand to defend our patients. If I didn't defend them, I would betray them and would renounce what I have in fact become: their natural advocate."
To be a natural advocate of unborn life is, of course, to emulate the natural advocate Chris-tians believe we have with the Father, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of all our ancestors. It is to celebrate the birth of that natural advocate in a sorrowful stable so that He could experience the joy of Easter that allows us to wish Merry Christmas to one and all.