I am no fan of Christmas. The myth I learned as a child seems naïve in adulthood. I do not subscribe to the religious or commercial aspects of the season and the introvert in me balks at so much socializing. But Len Gengal asked me write a Christmas piece for Be Like Brit and my ambivalence for the holiday evaporates in the face of my respect for Len. He loved Christmas and the joy it brought his daughter until that joy got yanked away when the Hotel Montana collapsed. So once again Len pushes me beyond my comfort zone. I am thinking about Christmas and realizing a fresh perspective on the holiday gained through maturity and my experience in Haiti.
The hope of Christmas lay in a vulnerable baby in a manger.
Amidst the ‘stuff’ we brought to Haiti over the past two years; an orphanage and a school, a road and clean water; two significant changes happened to me. First, I got older, noticeably older. The travel, the sun, the rudimentary living took its toll. I have more age spots and wrinkles and my mental lapses are accelerating in number and severity. Second, death became a more visceral presence in my life. When my grandparents and parents died, the unfortunate events were tempered by their adherence to natural order. But death in Haiti ignores such logic; peers died, children died, death is both arbitrary and frequent; we inured ourselves against grief to avoid being consumed by it. This familiarity with death seems to have followed me back to the States. In the past week we pulled the plug on my friend Peter Lee after a brain injury left him in a coma without any prospects of neurological function, and the beautiful scientist Tanya Williams died at a mere forty-two. Death is no longer something I can observe at arm’s length; I am in the thick of it.
The hope of Christmas lay in an innocent baby in a manger.
Death cemented my commitment to Haiti; 250,000 deaths in general and one in particular. In life, Britney Gengel was a joy to her family and friends; in death she has rallied hundreds, thousands of people to step up for Haiti. More specifically, to step up for children in Haiti, to provide sustenance and shelter, education and opportunity. The story of Christ’s birth stopped being a quaint, primitive tale as I worked among children who lived in stys and slept on dirt; children who don’t even have the luxury of a manger.
The hope of Christmas lay in a pure baby in a manger.
Christmas is the ultimate celebration of hope over reason. It acknowledges that we have created a tragic mess of the beautiful world we have been given, that we adults are so entwined in its machinations we can never salvage it, that only something tiny and vulnerable, innocent and pure can lead us on the path we are too narrow minded to find ourselves. Be Like Brit is going to give six dozen children with manger-like backgrounds the chance to shine at their full potential. Though I doubt any will be the Messiah, there is a good chance they will eventually teach or fish or build with wood or lead others. Thanks to the Gengel’s tribute to Britney these children will all have the opportunity to transcend their origin.
The hope of Christmas lay in a perfect baby in a manger; a baby who saves us from our imperfect selves; a baby who transcends his surroundings to bring us the hope that one day all children will enter the world free from suffering.