“Misery to Bliss and the Birth of the Son” (St Stephen 2018)
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
“Only a step and my deepest misery could turn into bliss.” So says the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s a very Christian sentiment. We wait and pine. We wait and pine, and almost pine away. Then the Lord bares His mighty arm and He comes to save us…and all changes. “Only a step and my deepest misery could turn into bliss” because the Lord acts.
So, as a way to link Christmas to St Stephen, let’s look at this misery turning into bliss at Christmas and in martyrdom.
Leading up to Christmas, in Advent, we entered into humanity’s anguished longing for the coming of a Savior. In the centuries leading up to the Messiah’s birth even the People of God were in misery, on the brink of despondency, desperate for salvation. There was no inspired Prophet for centuries. Might it have seemed that the Word of God had fallen silent, that the light of God’s living word had given way to darkness, that God was absent?
But might the silence be the garment of a more profound Word? Might the night enclose a higher, more sublime light? Might the seeming absence open up to a subtle, even more overwhelming presence of God in hiddenness?
Sure enough. “When peaceful silence lay over all, and the night had run half of her swift course, your all-powerful word, O Lord, leapt down from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land of doom.” (Wis 18:14-15). Word in silence. Light in the dark night. The hidden God present in our midst. God hidden in a cave. Jesus Christ is born for us! Our Savior Christ the Lord is born! The world rejoices and sings with the angels “Glory to God in the highest!” Humanity’s deepest misery has turned into bliss.
John Tauler, the 14th century Dominican, has some very bright and upbeat sermons; one of them is for Christmas. He speaks of the threefold birth of the Son—eternally in the bosom of the Father, historically from the womb of the Virgin, and presently in our souls. Here are several lines from his sermon, “[At Christmas, we] celebrate a threefold birth which should make all our hearts overflow with joy, in praising and loving God. We should be beside ourselves with gratitude and gladness. If we do not feel this, there must be something wrong with us… [For] ‘A child is born to us and a son is given to us.’ He is ours. He is all our own, more truly ours than anything else we own, and constantly, ceaselessly, He is born in us…At every hour God is born into the souls of the just, through grace and love” (TAN ed., p153-4).
Yes, yes, Tauler, even now the mystery of Christmas can turn our misery into bliss. We can open ourselves to the Son being born in us, the Son coming to us in a new way, the Son being sent invisibly to us as a “word breathing forth love” (Aquinas, ST I q 43, a 5, ad 2). The all-powerful Word leaps down from heaven once again.
In martyrdom we have a striking example of this misery being turned into bliss. St Stephen is crushed by rocks, mocked, ridiculed, spit upon…yet his face shines like an angel. How so? Because the Son has been sent to him anew (cf. ST I q 43, a 6, ad 2). We heard in the Acts of the Apostles, “But [Stephen], filled with the Holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55-6). The heavens are opened to Stephen because he has opened his heart to the Son. Stephen is born into eternal life because the Son has been born into him, and the martyr’s deep misery is turned into bliss.
So, for us, today, all this holds true even if in lesser ways. We each have our little day-to-day martyrdoms, a white martyrdom of sorts, everyday trials. They are not big, but they are not nothing either. They are something and they add up. We might not daily face our ‘deepest misery that in a step could turn into bliss’ but we have our little miseries that could turn into joy. The tiny inconveniences of life, contradictions, humiliations, being rubbed the wrong way, bearing with our own character defects, humbly giving way to others. We will have to get small in many ways. Not in every way, but we will have to get small in many ways. And in humbly getting small, we meet the grace of Christmas, the small Babe in the manger, the Son being born in us anew, “Glory to God in the highest!”