Christmas tree ornament

Christmas 2015

In mid-December, I was in Bethlehem. It was an immense joy to find that since my last visit there, three years ago, our community has grown – a joy again to meet Kathy, Mahera, Amira, Haythem, Sara, each one. The community is now located in a large house close to the Basilica of the Nativity. A beautiful community, exploding with joy, even though the situation in the country remains very difficult. It was obvious how happy everyone was to be together, Muslims and Christians, in an atmosphere of mutual support, simplicity of life and productive work. You have probably seen – at least in photos – the nativity scenes and other felted wool items made at the workshop from the wool of Bethlehem sheep. Could they be the descendants of the sheep in the flocks kept by the shepherds in Jesus’ day?

These shepherds heard the angel say to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people: for to you is born this day in the City of David, a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be the sign for you: you will find a new-born baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly, the heavenly host began to praise God saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth.” Then the shepherds said to one another: “Let us go to Bethlehem.” And there they found Mary and Joseph with the new-born baby lying in the manger.

This new-born baby is the Prince of Peace announced by Isaiah (chapter 9). Peace, yes peace! St Paul says of Jesus: “He is our peace, who has broken down the barrier between two peoples and made them one, in his own flesh, removing the hatred.” (Eph. 2:14). What great hope this is for the world wounded by hatred, divisions, violence and fear.

The weakness of different people, born of different cultures and religions, has become the place of relationship. Weakness has found a new meaning through what we desire to live in our communities of L’Arche and Faith and Light. It is no longer a reality to be despised, to be kept at a distance, but a reality that becomes a link. It is the cry: “I need you, your respectful and loving presence.” Weakness becomes a gift that unites the community, as we come to realise our great need for one another.

Today Bethlehem is surrounded by a huge wall, eight meters high and over 500 km long. On both sides of this wall live men, women and children who are afraid. Very close to Bethlehem is Jerusalem, a city of hope in spite of war and division. This is the heart of a torn humanity, a city where people weep and live in fear, where there are signs of death but at the same time, signs of hope and resurrection. Out of Bethlehem, where there is so much desolation and fear, there springs forth a song of thanksgiving. And at the heart of Bethlehem there is our community that sings about peace, unity and joy. It was a great joy for me to be at the heart of the community and also to pray in the grotto of the vast Basilica of the Nativity, the hidden place where Jesus was born. Accompanied by Odile, I spent four days of joy and peace in our community, happy with all that I have seen, touched and heard.

In Arabic, our community is called Ma’an lil-Hayat, which means “together for life.” The cultural barriers that keep us apart have been destroyed, the hearts of everyone united. We discover in L’Arche that the essence of the human being is weakness, and at the core of this weakness is a loving heart. We are all born into the extreme weakness of a small child who needs the reassuring and loving arms of a mother. And the end of our lives will again be a time of extreme weakness when we will need the competent and tender hands of someone who accompanies us. At the beginning and at the end of our lives there is suffering, and throughout our lives we face weaknesses and limitations. We have a great need for one another. But each of us also has an ego that grows and tries to prove our strength, our skills and our need to win, hiding our limitations and weaknesses. We can very quickly hate those who seem to be against us, our enemies.

L’Arche is small and composed of very fragile and weak people who have often been viewed by their parents as a source of shame and sometimes even as a punishment from God. And yet in L’Arche they become a sign of real relationship.

In the sixth century BC, Buddha said: “A man may conquer a million men in battle but he who conquers himself is the best of conquerors.” Yes, it’s a struggle to discover our true humanity and not be overwhelmed by our ego: to become men and women who, while certainly needing to grow in competence – not for our own glory but to become responsible for our brothers and sisters in the human family, whatever their religion or culture – must die to ourselves, to our ego, in order to help one another and enable each person to become more human and more loving and so work together for peace.

It is a call to live tenderness: no longer trying to dominate but drawing near and being present to each one. A child and a person who has suffered humiliation both need encounters that are loving and respectful because each one is a child of God, infinitely precious. It is all about helping a person, by means of friendship, to discover her true freedom, and the profound meaning of her humanity so that once more she can rise up and stand, and in her turn, become a sign of peace and love.

The two symbols of the religion of Jesus are the manger and the cross, two moments when Jesus shows his weakness. The hope for Christians is a child in a manger! A weak and tiny child needing to be loved, fed, changed, and dressed by his mother. And this same hope also comes from Jesus rejected, brought low and finally crucified. On the cross, Jesus cries out his abandonment by the Father. He shouts his thirst for love. Weakness is the sign of a cry for love.

In his weakness, Jesus calls us to welcome our humanity. He promises to give us new strength, a strength that will allow us to love all people, even to love our enemies and to bless those who curse us. He calls us to do something that seems impossible: to be artisans of peace in a world of war: not just to love the people in our tribe, our group, our religion, but to love those from different religions and cultures because they are all human beings, people loved by God. Jesus comes to change our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. He promises to give us His Holy Spirit, the Paraclete.

In the manger, is Jesus not asking us to let ourselves be transformed by children and even to become like children? On the cross, is he not asking us to get close to the earth’s poor people, to those abandoned and crucified, in other words the people locked up in their weakness? Being close to those who are weak transforms those who accept to enter into relationship with them.

Our humanity seems to have lost its way on the path to life: yet I would like this letter, far from being a cry of sadness, discouragement or weakness, to be a small sign of hope in the face of all the difficulties, insecurities, or fears that may invade us. Personally, I experienced the horrible tragedy of 13 November, and the savagery of these young jihadists, as a call to not sink into fear, discouragement or even hatred but to get up and live my faith in Jesus who is our peace and to become a peacemaker myself.

These are the words of Etty Hillesum, the young Jewish woman hunted down by the Gestapo who died in Auschwitz:

“Other people can’t do anything to us, they really can’t. They can harass us, they can rob us of our material goods, of our freedom of movement, but we ourselves forfeit our greatest assets by our misguided compliance. By our feelings of being persecuted, humiliated and oppressed. By our own hatred… We may of course be sad and depressed by what has been done to us; that is only human and understandable. However, our greatest injury is one we inflict upon ourselves. I find life beautiful and I feel free. The sky within me is as wide as the one stretching above my head. I believe in God and I believe in man and I say so without embarrassment. Life is hard, but that is no bad thing… True peace will come only when every individual finds peace within himself; when we have all vanquished and transformed our hatred for our fellow human beings of whatever race – even into love one day, although perhaps that is asking too much. It is, however, the only solution.”

Peace is not a utopia – it is really very practical, and I have to work on it. It is not a flower that I pick but rather bread that must be kneaded. Etty’s words express it well for us: they invite us to adopt an approach that actively welcomes the other person and oneself as we are, without judgment. Certainly, each of us is responsible for our actions and needs to be accountable for them.

However, if we are to be true peacemakers, are we not being led to try to discover what is most human and most hidden in each person, beyond their actions?

I would so much love to be a peacemaker there where I am, through prayer, through encounters, through listening and kindness to each person, through my life in my foyer and in the community. John Paul II used to say: “There is no peace without justice, and there is no justice without forgiveness.” I am currently reading a great book about forgiveness written by Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho Tutu: The Book of Forgiving. Having led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Desmond Tutu tells us: “Forgiveness is nothing less than the way the world is healed.” After the end of apartheid, this commission has worked to heal the hatred between white people and black people. Forgiveness is at the heart of any relationship, and at the heart of community life. Personally, I need not only to be forgiven but also to forgive. Our Pope Francis, in opening the door of mercy, shows us the way of compassion and forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting; it brings hope for a true encounter with the other. It allows us to free ourselves in order to build the future.

Let us pray for one another, that we can face reality, which is often so painful, and discover that God loves me and calls me to love each person and, in this way, hope can be born anew.

I greet you warmly in the New Year,

Jean

Download PDF version

The Letter from Jean Vanier is published approximately 4 times a year. The Association Jean Vanier maintains the subscription list and does not share information with third parties. Only the Email and Language fields are mandatory. The other fields will help us customize the content and prevent double entries.

Do you wish to receive a summary of news about Jean Vanier and his impact in the world? This monthly newsletter will be launched in fall of 2018