The Lord says:/ You Bethlehem-Ephrathah,/ too small to be among the clans of Judah,/ From you shall come forth for me/ one who is to be ruler in Israel;/ whose origin is from of old,/ from ancient times.
Yesterday there was a story in the Washington Post by Nick Anderson on the enormous gap in readiness for college between students termed “disadvantaged” in our society and those who are not so designated. It pointed out that “. . . just 9 percent of students in the class of 2017 who came from low-income families, whose parents did not go to college, and who identify as black, Hispanic, American Indian or Pacific Islander are strongly ready for college. But the readiness for students with none of those demographic characteristics was six times as high, 54 percent, according to data released Thursday.”
It was as mindful of this striking data, yet another reminder of a society whose affluence is so unevenly distributed, that I came to the reading from Micah on this Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The other aspect of the context that I brought to this feast day is that it is the anniversary of the entrance into the Congregation and of First Profession of many Xaverian Brothers, past and present. It is also a time of final profession for three of our Brothers in the Congo.
The first words of scripture on this feast day speak of the significant role in human salvation history of the small and insignificant town of Bethlehem. It is often omitted in other scriptural references to the cities of Judah, and, yet, it is to be the birthplace of the Messiah. Today we celebrate in the Church the birth of a common and ordinary human being who lives her calling and her summons to mission to the full. It is in her common humanity that she stands as a witness to us of a whole-hearted and unending willingness to respond to the task or mission that is our life at each moment. As the Fundamental Principles remind us:
Stand ready to answer
if you are available for God
to become more present in your life
and through you to the world
may you willingly respond:
Let what you have said be done to me!
It is not in a significance that the world recognizes but rather in what is most ordinary and common in us that we are a mission to incarnate Jesus in our world in our own unique and limited way. When St Paul proclaims in Philippians (1: 21-22) that: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me.”, he declares that life is mission, or, as Adrian van Kaam puts it, an “assignment, task, and mysterious call.” While we live and breathe, says Paul, we are to do so in “fruitful labor.” In 2 Corinthians 5:15, Paul says that since the death of Jesus we “no longer live for ourselves but for him.” Wherever and in whatever state we find ourselves, our life is to be a life “for him.” This means the question that is daily before us is the question of call: “In this place, in this condition in which we find ourselves what is the world asking of us?”
In the larger scheme of things, in the universal Church and in the societies in which the Xaverian Brothers serve, we are even smaller and less significant than Bethlehem. We are truly as common and ordinary as Mary of Nazareth. In Europe and the United States we are not only small in size but largely retired, aged, and infirm. Yet, we are reminded today that none of that matters. What does matter is that we stand ready to be available to however God calls us to allow God to be more present to us and through us to the world.
IN 2014, St Xavier High School in Louisville celebrated its 150th anniversary. At that celebration the radio journalist and St. Xavier alumnus Bob Edwards served as the master of ceremonies. As such, he did not deliver one of the major speeches, yet his brief comments continue to reverberate in my memory. He reflected that the great gift that St. Xavier and the Xaverian Brothers were to him was that they showed him that his dreams were truly a possibility. His family had lived in a certain locale and in a certain way for generations. He knew aspirations, he realized a unique life call, that was beyond the limits which circumscribed his family’s life story. In his experience the Brothers in Louisville reverenced, encouraged, and served the expansion of his aspirations. His life of service to the larger society through his journalism was made possible because of those teachers and mentors who would not let the limits and circumstances of generations define his life and possibilities.
In reading the story from the Washington Post today, the words of Bob Edwards powerfully resounded within me. If the educational mission and charism is growth in the gross domestic product of a society and the establishment of at least some self-sufficient institutions of secondary education, then perhaps it is time for the retirement and death of Xaverianism in the United States. Yet, the data presented in the Post story suggests quite something else. In the most affluent country in the world, there are huge gaps and unmet needs in the education being offered to our young people. There are margins not only in the developing world but also in the developed world. There are many whose deeper aspirations have little possibility of realization, not only by circumstance but even by deliberate discrimination and suppression.
The promise of the American experiment is defined by the phrase e pluribus unum, out of many one. Yet that promise is not merely still to be fulfilled, but is rather in danger of dying. Instead of communities that are built on the ground of our ordinariness and common humanity, we find ourselves more and more creating false communities of external likeness, based on race, religion, economic status, and political affiliation. Is it possible to begin to relearn that true community depends on our investment in the deeper aspirations and call of each other? Where experts are failing to show the way, might it be that insignificant, ordinary, and common persons, those who have come to know the wonder and possibility of the common and the ordinary in their daily lives, might incarnate the Lord through the community and service they share?
Many years ago one of our Brothers would repeat this mantram in his later years: “I’d rather die living than live dying.” St. Paul says that for us, “to live is Christ,” by which, he means that to live is to live in serving, in standing ready to respond to whatever the Lord is asking of us each day. What is the suffering of those whose deeper hopes and aspirations go unrecognized and unappreciated by our society asking of us? Although none of us can cure society’s many ills, we can devote ourselves to standing ready when God asks us if we are available for God to become more present in our lives and through us to the world. As Mother Teresa said,” If you can’t feed one hundred people, then feed just one.”
Embarking on this journey to our roots, our past – remote and proximate – reappeared before us – times of exultation and times of despair, moments of hope and anger, crises and crossroads, partial failures and successes. When we behold these glimpses of the past in anamnesis, we begin to see how they are interconnected with the deeper narrative of the brotherhood… and perhaps this interconnection begins to show us what our past and present are for, the deeper calling within them, and what our outstanding future as a brotherhood could be. Thus we gradually discover that our life has been going somewhere, however unaware we have been of its direction and however unhelpful to it we ourselves may have been. We find in anamnesis a connective thread that has been forming beneath the surface of our lives, revealing the congregational charism that has been trying to establish itself in our existence.
. . . .
The (com)passionate fire of the Spirit which beguiled Ryken would be actualized over time by ordinary men like him. By living the vowed life in communities centered around the Word and worship of God, freely choosing an ordinary life that foregoes privilege and entitlement, and turning constantly toward God, these men would become a band of brothers in touch with and responsible for their giftedness and transformed into common men who would lead truly contemplative lives and who would mission beyond their comfortable worlds, locate themselves at the margin of the margins, and form the inhabitants of these margins to discover their own giftedness.
Reginald D. Cruz, CFX, Conclusion to Working Papers on Xaverian Charism