When they moved the liturgical feast of Saint John of the Cross from late November to mid-December I felt at ease with the change because it placed our Holy Father Saint John that much closer to the Solemnity of Christmas.
Saint John of the Cross is a strong proponent of the Incarnation, appreciating how the Divinity plunged unreservedly out of love into and for the material world created by the Trinity’s wise plan. Saint John takes his cue from Jesus God-made-man: he does not oppose use of created things nor does he advise his followers to underestimate their own incarnate state. No, they will do well so long as they handle creatures in compliance with God’s plan by avoiding abuse of them for selfish aims. They are Incarnation School disciples of the great Spanish co-Reformer of Carmel. His long romance poem “In principio erat verbum” proclaims this, telling lyrically the coming of the Word-in-the-flesh that culminates in His birth as one like us in all things but sin (in the sober terms of the Letter to the Hebrews).
Who can forget the poignant picture displayed in that poem’s final three strophes where he includes the most moving of human actions, the crying of a new-born infant:
. . .But God there in the manger
Cried and moaned;
And these tears were jewels
The bride brought to the wedding.
The mother gazed in sheer wonder
On such an exchange:
In God, man’s weeping,
And in man, gladness
To the one and the other,
Things usually so strange.
For John the infant son of Mary did cry like any other child. With all due respect for the author (somewhat disputed) of the Christmas carol “Away in a Manger,” Jesus “crying [did] make”! Saint John of the Cross was so sensitized to the vulnerability of the Christ Child that he once picked up a doll-like statuette of Him and danced around the recreation room, as if to comfort the tiny and needy Incarnate Redeemer.
We can take both consolation and instruction from the first Carmelite Doctor of the Church for dealing with the current global health woes we experience. John was sensitive to human need around him. He would feel deeply for humankind if he were still here among us. His companions said he was especially concerned about the sick members of his communities. He made sure they were well cared for. No doubt he had formed this kindly attitude in his service as a teenager while working in a hospital at Medina del Campo. That charitable institution was a contagious disease hospital. With Coronavirus contagion still running high around the world nowadays we can consider Saint John a sympathetic intercessor for those who have “cried and moaned” during this pandemic.
John was one to effectively do something for the sick, seeing in them the imago Dei [likeness of God]. The Incarnate Lord started out as a vulnerable infant displaying the imago Dei He shared with humankind, their victorious Savior who had first introduced real “gladness” into this earth of ours. He then brought with Him out of this world to heaven a glorified incarnational admixture of “man’s weeping” and “gladness.”
Let this year’s feast of the sublime poet of the Spanish language be a new opportunity for us to ask his assistance to generously help each other while we go through the darkness of the COVID-19 night covering the earth, even as we celebrate his genius.
Some are beginning to worry that only a faint holiday, if any, of Christmas awaits us in the last days of this pandemic-spoiled year. Nonetheless, along with Saint John we can stand all the closer to the crying Christ with joy even if we might miss many customary forms of seasonal festivities (which sometimes mostly tend to distract from His presence with us anyway). We might better succeed this year in centering intently on Christ for Christmas. The additional trappings that have multiplied by tradition might not be missed as much–as some fear–while we are led to express greater love for the infant in the manger for His own sake. . .even if we dance with Him strictly spiritually and not in our arms.
Fr. John Sullivan, O.C.D.