Rome (AsiaNews) - Tomorrow is Christmas. Once again we celebrate the coming of God in human flesh, in poverty and in the misery of our human condition. This coming of God to live among us is the source of our hope, the light which comes to add itself to the darkness of our existence, which reaches down into the depths of the abyss of our paths which often seem to have no way out. Benedict XVI has given us further proof of this with his encyclical “Spe salvi” (Saved by hope).
I recently participated in a conference on dissidence under Soviet communism. And I was struck by the strange bond between the death camps and prayer. Stalinism, almost mockingly, used the monasteries as prisons and places of torture, transforming the cells where Orthodox monks would withdraw in silence to prisons, where in the calm and dark of night the condemned could be tortured and killed without their screams being heard. An academic, who is an expert in that period, described how one dissident undressed himself as he prepared to be subjected to shower for disinfestation. Before him, some mutilated people had left not only their clothes but the prosthesis which aided their handicap, here an arm, there a leg. When the guards came to him they asked him with contempt: “And you? What will you leave us? Your soul?” The dissident replied: “No. My soul cannot be touched: it does not belong to you”. This is only one example of how the most tragic of situations are often the occasion to rediscover the depths of the human person, that non-negotiable element of life which is our relationship with God. The rediscovery of the soul in the materialist world of Stalinism has been witnessed by many writers, not least of them Alexander Solzenicyn, who, in his “Archipelago Gulag” describes the abyss of degradation which man can reach but also the heights of holiness that man, can discover in a life full of oppression.
There is a grace which can penetrate the heart of the death camps. The Vietnamese Card. Francesco Saverio Nguyen Van Thuan, who died on September 16th 2002 in Rome, witnessed this time and time again. He became auxiliary bishop of Saigon only days before the Vietcong troops seized power in South Korea, a few months later he was arrested and lived the next 13 years of his life in prison and harsh isolation. And yet that very prison became his new and fertile mission. “In the abyss of my weakness, both physical and mental – he wrote – I received the Grace of the Blessed Virgin. I could no longer celebrate, but I said the Hail Mary a hundred thousand times and the Virgin gave me the strength to be united with Christ nailed to the cross: I felt how Jesus saved humanity there, only there, on the Cross, absolutely immobilised”.
In our work as witnesses for the people and the Church in Asia, very often we have to denounce imprisonment, violence, wars, and trade in human lives. But this is just one side of the coin. The other speaks of mans’ rebirth, of the vitality of these Churches, of martyrdom and fertility. The multiple signs of life in the Church in Asia (in Iraq, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and even North Korea) and their witness of charity in their society, confirm to us that Christ is born and that he does not abandon man to a tragic destiny.
Too often for us in the West Christmas is a “celebration, without the Celebrated”, when we exchange gifts without ever really exchanging The Gift. Knowing and sharing the experiences of our many brothers and sisters in Asia, which we recount on these pages, is a way for us to rediscover within ourselves and our situations the dignity and the beauty of being a human person loved by God, who came to be close to us. Merry Christmas.