On Christmas and Father Damien
Updated: Oct 21, 2022
My first year in the seminary my spiritual director gave me a book to read entitled Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai. The book tells the story of a Belgian priest whose path eventually took him to Hawaii, specifically to the island of Moloka’i, where he was the first priest to volunteer to serve the people who had been quarantined there due to leprosy. For sixteen years, from 1873 until 1889, he preached the Gospel there, in both words and action: building houses and hospitals, establishing churches, single-handedly constructing coffins so that those who died would have a dignified burial, washing and bandaging wounds, and providing emotional support in dealing with a disease that was not only physically painful, but that also had a social stigma attached to it unlike none other seen until perhaps the beginning of the AIDS crisis in our own time.
For me, the most inspirational part of a rather extraordinary story, occurred in late 1884, when Father Damien stood up to preach and began his sermon with the chilling words “We lepers.” After years of a ministry that was intimate and intense, he, himself had succumbed to the same awful disease that the rest of his flock had had to suffer. And, like countless others before him, Father Damien’s life was cut short by the disease as well.
So frequently when we think of ministry, philanthropy or charity, we can think in terms of us and them. And this is perhaps natural, as, for the most part, unlike, say the people of Aleppo, we don't have to worry about our basic needs being met; we don't have to live each moment wondering if a bomb or gunshots will shatter the calm of our lives; we don’t have to spend our days thinking that the only way we can possibly survive is by leaving our homes and getting out - any way that we possibly can. No, in one sense, we are vastly different than the people of Aleppo.
However, though there is much that makes us different from the people of Aleppo, different from the homeless on our streets, different from those in prison, different from those with AIDS, different from those whose very lives are a struggle, our faith tells us that we are far more similar to them than we perhaps sometimes think. We are all children of God, all given the most precious gift of life from our Creator, and all given this world in which we live, to allow — bit by bit and hand in hand — the wonders of creation to be worked out for us, through us, and by us. Every single person on this planet is linked to every other person. Ultimately there is no us and them, simply us. We lepers. We of Aleppo. We prisoners. We who hurt. We who seek. We who struggle. We who weep. We who rejoice.
Christmas, the Great Feast of the Incarnation, is a time when this reality is most readily evident, as God himself decided to tear down the walls of distinction once and for all, by choosing to become one of us. In being found in human form and humbling himself (as we hear in the sublime canticle in Philippians, chapter 2) , the timeless Creator of all so entered into our human condition than eventually he who is eternal even made himself obedient unto death, so intense was his desire to become one with us. This is the true glory of Christmas.
As we celebrate this love which is beyond all telling, may we give thanks for the God who would go to such depths for us, his children. And, in so doing, may we also be strengthened to see just how connected we are to all of our fellow citizens on earth, striving to tear down the walls of division and hatred that would seek to limit the glorious peace which should be a hallmark of Christmas. May the Holy Child of Bethlehem inspire us to do what we can to enter more fully into the wonders of creation prepared for us all.