For the holiday season, a friar writes about how society’s Christmas customs have changed and why it is important to remember “only Jesus can lead us out of our world’s bedlam and into the Silent Night of His Bethlehem.”
A sparkling new hospital opened in 13th-century England. It represented the best medical science had to offer and was named Saint Mary of Bethlehem. Over time, it was simply referred to as Bethlehem. Two hundred years later, it became a refuge for the mentally ill and Bethlehem was pronounced more like Bed-lam. There is a lot of bed-lam in today’s world. We live in a world that marginalizes God and trivializes religion.
Back in 1981, The Toronto Star published an anti-smoking slogan created up by a fourth-grader. She drew a picture with the caption “If God wanted you to smoke, He would have given you a chimney.” The Public Health Department, which sponsored the campaign, modified what the little girl had written and “took the God concept out. We thought it might be offensive to some people.” The One who spoke to Elijah in “a tiny whispering sound” (I Kings 19:12) is no longer welcome in the public forum. Where He does find a welcome, His gentle voice is easily drowned out by the discordant sounds of modern life. Now our public displays of Christmas have become so politically correct they manage to offend everyone but the atheists.
During Advent, the ghosts of Christmas past often return to haunt us. I recall Norman Rockwell paintings gracing the covers of the old Saturday Evening Post magazine. Back then, Bing Crosby dreamed of a white Christmas, and the Little Town of Bethlehem graced village greens in even the smallest towns. In today’s Boston, the crèche on the Common must be protected from vandals. A thick, plastic sheet prevents people from removing the Christ Child and replacing Him with snowballs. School children are free to “Deck the Halls” as long as nobody asks, “What Child is This?” “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays” have replaced “Merry Christmas,” and we are reluctant to provide a safe haven for Christians who are fleeing persecution in the Middle East.
I would like to tell a story of bedlam in Bolivia. It was about a month before Advent in 1964. I had a little country parish where there were no roads, running water or electricity. The only way in or out was by military plane, usually an old DC 3. I did have a small, battery-operated tape recorder and thought it would be nice to fly to La Paz and record Christmas music I could play during Mass on the 25th. A revolution broke out while I was taping “Silent Night.” You could hear P51 Mustangs on strafing runs. Rifle fire and exploding bombs added to the din. I remember thinking to myself, “I hope this recording is not picking up all that background noise.” It did. It was the noisiest “Silent Night” I have ever heard. It was bedlam in Bolivia.
There is a lot of bedlam in today’s world. We read about it in the morning paper and watch it on the evening news. It can be as far away as pipe bombs in Baghdad or as close as our failed “War on Poverty.” Jesus embraced our bedlam the night he entered Bethlehem. He embraced it to transform it. This is a good time to remind ourselves that only Jesus can lead us out of our world’s bedlam and into the Silent Night of His Bethlehem.
— Fr. Raymond is stationed at St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a current event, holiday, holy day, or other seasonal theme — are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at firstname.lastname@example.org. The newsletter’s previous seasonal reflection, by John Frambes, OFM, was about the Year of Mercy.
- “Seasonal Resources” page of HNP.org
- “From Bethlehem to Bedlam: England’s First Mental Institution” – Historic England website