Ghosts of Christmas past

The Jesus who invites me to celebrate his birth is one
who invites me to explore with him every aspect of the
human condition and make it both mine and his.


By Fr Justin Glyn SJ, General Counsel of the Australian Province of the Society of Jesus

As a child, I grew up in a South Africa which was far removed from its present state. The country was an apartheid state. The ability to discriminate on racial grounds was written into its Constitution. Repeated attempts by Indigenous peoples to gain a voice in the legislative process had failed and they faced constant abuse, ranging from massacres to deaths in police custody – all unpunished. Disabled people and the elderly were very much second-class citizens. Aligned with the United States in the struggle against Russia (then the USSR) and China, the government rode roughshod over the rights of the vulnerable and lionised the military, with whistleblowers and alleged spies facing the wrath of the state’s security apparatus. Sporting events and relentless propaganda from a tightly held media masked the underlying insecurity of an unjust society where many of its members were ignored and a vast gulf separated rich and poor. None of this was up for discussion outside the marginalised whispers of the street.

As a child, of course, my early Christmas memories were unclouded by all this. Living in a loving and protective family, my first memories of Christmas were of lights on the tree and in the streets, carols, presents and crib-laying ceremonies at our local Anglican church. My aunt would make Christmas puddings to be enjoyed at family celebrations which would go long into the night.

Still, as I grew, the love that my family taught me slowly grew into an understanding that the artificial bubble in which I lived was preserved on a framework of injustice. This realisation grew stronger as I experienced bullying through most of my school career and, later, became involved in disability rights activism. While Christianity was always a part of my consciousness, my teen conversion to Catholicism marked a deliberate choice to live a faith which had previously been purely cultural.

“My first memories of Christmas were of lights on the tree and in the streets, carols, presents and crib-laying ceremonies.” Photograph: David McMahon

Still, what this understanding meant for Christmas was slow to percolate. While I took part in rallies and civic life and rejoiced in South Africa’s transition to democracy, my faith took a while to mature. I recognised that God was behind the desire for justice but I did not really engage God in relationship – or, more importantly, realise that this was God’s call to me.

After moving to New Zealand, and later joining the Jesuits, I was introduced to a different understanding. The novitiate Long Retreat and experiments introduced me to a God who loved me first and called me into a bond of love. The desire for justice flowed out of God’s desire for a world grown cold.

Now, in tertianship, I am back in the country where I began. The country has changed as much as I have since I was last here. The gap between rich and poor remains and the infrastructure is in dire need of repair. Occasional riots express a frustration with the slow rate of improvement. The same party has remained in government since liberation.

There is, however, a sense of change. South Africa today has cordial relations with Russia, China and the US – no mean feat in our polarised world. Church services are bilingual in English and Zulu here in KwaZulu Natal and the militarised paranoia is gone. While corruption remains, there are plenty of voices to call it out. A Constitution with an entrenched bill of rights guarantees at least a measure of justice.

It is a good parallel for my experience of the Incarnation in the Spiritual Exercises. In the Incarnation Contemplation in which the retreatant is invited to look upon the bruised world with God and share the understanding of the need for a Saviour, I viscerally understood how the only possible solution which God could adopt was to love the world into change from the inside out. The process is gradual but the entry of Christ means the solidarity of God with every aspect of human existence. The Jesus who invites me to celebrate his birth this Christmas is one who invites me to explore with him every aspect of the human condition and make it both mine and his.

Yes, there is still inadequacy and wrong. The problems do not go away. Nevertheless, once they are identified in the light of the love of God and defanged by Christ’s presence among us, they become a project for us to work on together. While I don’t know what the future holds (or even what I shall be doing this Christmas), the Nativity now has become a lifelong experience shared with a whole world which has been loved into being and whose travails are shared by God who has become one of us.

Yesterday (16 December) Fr Justin Glyn SJ was appointed by Pope Francis as a Consultor of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.

Banner photo by Kieran White on Unsplash