Spevak: For Christmas this year, take a cue from the pope

12/20/2013 12:00 AM

12/19/2013 3:29 PM

For this year’s Christmas column, I’m taking my inspiration from Pope Francis. I think I’d do this even if I weren’t Catholic.

I’ve observed that many persons of other religions or of no religion are saying that the current pope has something noteworthy to offer today’s world. People admire his simplicity of living, depth of thought, willingness to listen and breadth of compassion.

The last two qualities are especially appropriate for Christmas, since a close reading of the Gospels indicates that Jesus of Nazareth, whose birthday we’ll soon be celebrating, was a deeply compassionate person who listened attentively to others.

Jesus showed compassion for the sick, the poor, the troubled, the anxious. He was aware, as writer Henri Nouwen put it, that we humans are all in some ways broken – imperfect beings who have experienced unwanted and often unwarranted suffering.

We are often aware of our own brokenness, such as when we don’t receive the attention or the love we desire. We also feel broken when we fall short trying to be the person we know we should be.

In the Gospels, Jesus is frequently seen encountering broken persons: a woman who for years had suffered from hemorrhaging, a short tax-collector who had to climb a tree to see the teacher, a woman worried about doing all the housework while her sister sat, a fisherman who didn’t have the courage to admit he was a follower of Jesus.

And in two of the most famous stories he tells, Jesus provides examples of severely broken people in need of extraordinary compassion: a traveler mugged alongside a road and a dissolute young man starving and in tatters.

In many cases when Jesus encounters broken people, he first listens to them carefully, as he does with the Roman official whose child is sick, the religious leader whose daughter is near death, the worried man who comes under the cover of night to ask about the meaning of life.

Except when dealing with religious hypocrites, Jesus responds to broken people not with rebuke, but with compassion. And then he heals them, either physically or spiritually.

The bleeding woman is cured, the tax-collector welcomed, the sick children made well, the anxious homemaker reassured, the fisherman forgiven, the robbed and beaten man bandaged and sheltered, the whoring son welcomed into the arms of his father.

Jesus sets the example for his followers – listen attentively and be compassionate.

The opportunities in today’s world to follow his example are multifold. There are so many people today who want and need to be listened to, often desperately: young children who crave attention, teenagers who are confused, spouses who want to share the day’s concerns, friends who need to vent their frustrations, elderly and home-bound persons who are lonely.

Likewise, the opportunities for compassion and, to some extent, healing are frequent – from the extreme cases of people who are hungry or homeless to the more frequently encountered examples of people who are despondent, depressed or hopeless.

Yes, Jesus, whose birthday is fast approaching, set the example, but it is a hard example to follow. We often don’t have the time to listen or the energy to be compassionate. In today’s hectic world, there is so much going on that we often feel too stretched or overwhelmed.

Commercials leading up to Christmas don’t help. They encourage us to spend money and imply the way to make people happy is to give them things. The reality of life, as Jesus showed, is that what people need from us are not things but our time and energy, to listen and to help.

The Christmas season (which according to advertisers ends in four days, but according to the Christian liturgy extends for several weeks after Dec. 25) is a good time to find some quiet space and time (not an easy task) to reflect on the words and life and person whose birth we’ll soon celebrate.

I’ll close – and I don’t think Pope Francis would mind – with the words of a Protestant theologian, Robert McAfee Brown, who said that the best way to follow the example of Jesus is to “love the loveless, that they might lovely be.”

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