Dear family and friends,
As Christians approach the revered celebration of the birth of Jesus, these words from a singer-poet illumine the meaning of Christmas, in a world and in a Church that are darkly and dangerously troubled:
Ring the bell that still can ring,
sing the song that still can sing,
There's a crack in everything-
that's how the light gets in.
(Leonard Cohen, "Anthem")
The beautiful Christmas decorations, the splendid liturgies, the goodwill that is evident in so much seasonal generosity, also obscure the dark and tragic circumstances of the Messiah's humble entry into our world.
There was the anguish shared by Mary and Joseph over the mystery surrounding Mary's pregnancy.
At the time of his birth, with no dignified setting to be found, Jesus was born in a place made for animals.
After His birth, there was the urgency to flee as refugees to Egypt, the very land where the ancestors of this new family had been enslaved for centuries. And this was necessary to escape the jealous and hateful king, who, trying to kill Jesus, massacred the newborn baby boys in Bethlehem.
It was through this dark history that eternal Light came to all who believe.
There are so many troubling emergencies in our world, it could be easy to let fear and despair take over our lives. As a beautiful stance against fear and gloom, we can also choose to ring a bell, sing a song, light a candle.
I have such a bell.
It was cast in Villedieu, France in 1912, blazoned with an impressive pedigree, in Latin.
Pius X was in his 9th year as Pope, Leconte was in his first year as President of France, Conan was in his 9th year as Archbishop, and the Franciscan Pastor of the Church is simply referred to as “Fr. Jan”.
This is not just any bell.
And yet your own God given pedigree, stamped on your soul, is infinitely more precious than this.
The upcoming 9th anniversary of the catastrophic Haiti earthquake makes 9 years that the bell is in front of our chapel.
The bell really belongs to Sisters, Les Filles de Marie de Paridaens. The bell had hung for a half of a century in the tower of their Church, near the Cathedral, in Port-au-Prince.
The Cathedral, along with the convent, school and church of the Sisters, were among 250,000 buildings that fell in 35 seconds, 9 years ago, causing 150,000 deaths, of such painful memory.
It is a too long a story to tell here, but I went to the fallen convent during those terrible days, because thieves were looting the ruins of the convent, and even rifling through the pockets of dead Sisters, to take whatever they could find.
I had to argue and bargain with the thieves to do it, but I succeeded in bringing the bodies of the six remaining Sisters to our hospital chapel for burial.
Then, I saw the thieves rolling the huge, fallen bell, to steal it.
After more arguing and bargaining, I was able to also take the bell, in exchange for three cold beers.
As I left, the bandits warned me that the bell would never ring again, because the clapper was gone.
I yelled back to them from the truck, as we left, that if they ever desecrated the dead again, I would ring the bell with their heads.
Not exactly priestly words, but the point was made.
A few weeks ago, we lived the irony of celebrating the feast of Christ the King under gunfire, in the La Saline section of Port-au-Prince.
That violence generated gruesome scenes, especially related to the dead, scenes that could only rightly fit in hell itself.
Such scenes are well known to returning soldiers, and relief workers from war zones around the world. They often have no one with whom to talk about these images, that haunt their memories.
We worked daily in La Saline, with the help of the Sisters of Mother Theresa, to help refugees (mostly young mothers and their children), also to recover and bury the dead, and to rescue the wounded, the old, the disabled who were not able to flee.
There is a certain area there called "derye charbon" (behind the charcoal). The area takes this name because of all the shacks that people call home, located behind the mountains of sacked, cooking charcoal sold on the main road.
All of these shacks had been burned to the ground in the violence.
There were some women, wailing the loss of children killed by bullets, who were digging with their bare hands in the warm ashes of what once was home, looking for anything to salvage. For most of them, some of the rusty and punched out corrugated tin that used to be their roof, was not fully destroyed. I watched as they rolled it carefully, tied it in bundles with old string, and placing it on their heads, headed off to start a new life.
Start a new life? Really? Where? How?
Everything about their lives now was unspeakable.
By what deep light in their souls, did they rise from their knees to their feet in those ashes?
A light coming through the deepest cracks of broken hearts.
By what soulful music in their hearts, did they take their first steps, weeping loudly, turning their backs to what was just yesterday their whole life, to walk toward an unknown tomorrow?
The poem "Anthem" speaks of the mighty spirit of these women, and of the ancient Christian wisdom that the very place of death is also the very place of rising again.
The bitter place of burial is the very place of resurrection.
The crack in the earth that serves as a tomb, blasts forth the glorious light of Rising eternally.
Yes, there is a crack in everything.
That’s exactly where to be, where to serve, where to wait for the light,
It is worth the wait.
Above is a picture of my bell.
True enough, in spite of its credentials, it has no clapper.
It is as silent as the nuns graves, over which it stands like a faithful guard.
But the thieves were wrong. We ring the bell whenever we want, with any piece of rebar we find on the ground, any hammer, any wrench used to change a tire or tighten a pipe. Once, in a pinch, I used false teeth to ring it.
The bell rings beautifully. Solemn, doleful octaves for our funerals (when struck on the rim), and joyful tenor notes for our High Holy Days and celebrations (when struck at mid bell).
Ring the bell in your life that still can ring.
Imagine if we all have the conviction to do it.
The beautiful music will lift humanity up to God, even in the darkest times.
Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery;
put on the splendor of glory from God forever!
As always, thank you for your ongoing support of our work in Haiti. Merry Christmas, and all blessings and good things, in the new year of Grace!
Fr Richard Frechette CP DO.
Port au Prince
Dec 14, 2018