Readers of former encyclicals will have made the acquaintance of such luminaries as Xenophon and Tantalus – and of Dag Hammarskjold and my Lourdes Pal – little Anne Marie. Now may I introduce another friend, Hezekiah – King of Jerusalem in the 8th century BC – famous for holding out against the siege of Sennacherib, the Assyrian. Foremost in Hezekiah’s meticulous preparations to resist – and a real achievement of its time – was a tunnel he had dug to provide protected access to water – that essential necessity for holding out. The tunnel is all of 500+ metres long [just over halfway from the Castle to the Front Gate!] and exits at the Pool of Siloam [where the man-born-blind was sent by Jesus to wash and see for the first time]. For its time – it was an even greater achievement than Eurotunnel in 1994 – when, without heavy modern machines and scientific instruments – the two separate working teams – coming from opposite directions – were less than a metre out of sync when the two tunnels met up! (**)
When on sabbatical in 1986 – the year when the US attacked Libya and Tripoli was bombed – I found myself in Jerusalem. Tension was high in the eastern Mediterranean – with a marked absence of tourists, especially American. Thus I was able to enjoy very non-crowded trips – with walking tours in Jerusalem itself frequently for only a handful of tourists in a group which should have counted over 50.
One day – at the end of a particular walking tour – the guide “invited” us to finish the tour on our own by “doing Hezekiah’s Tunnel”. I was one of a trio who accepted the challenge – a moment of folly which I began to regret when, well into the tunnel – and with water up to our knees – our candles suddenly went out. In complete darkness – not knowing how far we had come and unable to turn back – we just had to keep groping our way forward – with our hands feeling along the sidewalls of the tunnel. Just before panic set in we heard a strange sound ahead of us – voices singing! – and we came across a group of school children singing The hills are alive with the sound of music. As they moved ahead – the darkness gave way as we could see the longed-for light in the distance – and we finally exited to find ourselves at the Pool of Siloam [which means sent] full of children enjoying a swim in the June sun.
We have all been living out something like this during this very strange and challenging year over two-and-a-half thousand years later. Our Sennacherib [covid-19] has laid siege to our city – our Assyria is said to be in the far-off city of Wuhan in China – and Hezekiah would be proud of Dr Tony Holohan! Hezekiah had taken measures to hold out during the threatened siege – and Dr Tony has been telling us what we have to do. Hezekiah’s extraordinary tunnel-diggers have as successors our heroic front-line carers and medics – and our hoped-for deliverance appears as the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel in the form of a variety of vaccines. Such is our modern-day Hezekiah experience – with the occasional blowout of candles [ill-advised excesses and taking risks] – all resulting is increased restrictions.
Thus we have a triple thread running through our lives as we come to the end of what has been an annus horribilis for so many. It has been a long and often dark tunnel for some – with many candle blowouts – but now with light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel – and, with the siege about to be lifted with the arrival of the Cavalry [vaccines] – our spirits have received a great boost.
In a few day’s time, we are about to celebrate the most extraordinary event – a real light moment – in the history of the world ……… the mystery of our timeless God accepting to become one of us – a mystery all the deeper because of the simplicity of the manner of Christ’s entering into time to share our human history when the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth. [Luke 1:26]
And isn’t there some parallel for us today – in the very covid-related restrictions imposed on us – as we are forced to return to the simplicity of the essence of Christmas – as, first and foremost, a celebration of Family – of intimacy and togetherness – challenges and struggles – differences and misunderstanding. We may know many Families where it is not possible for the older generation to be with their children and grandchildren.
Just like Joseph and Mary – we are all being asked to make sacrifices, great and small.
We can often place too much emphasis on the holy in the “Holy Family” – and place even poor Joseph on too high a pedestal! When, at the age of twelve, Jesus remained in the Temple – he was “lost” for all of 5 days ………… one day out + another back to Jerusalem + three days in the city looking for Him – see how worried your Father and I have been! [Luke 2:48] There must surely have been moments of tension [words, perhaps?] between Mary and Joseph as anxious Parents searching for their Son! But that did not mean that they did not love each other even in their suffering.
Indeed, we may know Families similarly suffering – who keep on loving – in these covid times.
Christians celebrate with great joy the Birth of Christ – a light-in-the-darkness – a new beginning for our world.
Next week we will celebrate another New Year – 2021 – looking to another new beginning – this time in the hope of a covid-free return to normality …. but can it ever be the same again?
We have learned too much to go back to what was normal – surely, we cannot afford to let God’s gift of our now better appreciation of how rich we are – not by what we have – but by what and who we are – and by what we have become to mean to each other – in unexpected kindness and understanding – in patience and tolerance – in caring and generosity – in initiative and neighbourliness – in turning to and supporting by prayer …… for hadn’t we come to realize that – in all these covid-deprivations – God has been simply writing straight with [our] crooked lines !!
As ever, for us Christians – our Hezekiah experience is an annual one – darkness-into-light – with this difference – that, as we approach the eve of the Birth of Christ – deliverance is already guaranteed. For those who have the gift of Faith – even in moments of darkness of fear and uncertainty – of suffering or sin – there is immediate light on hand to guide us on our journey. In our stumbling blindness to the reality of God’s love for us – we are all searching for light – on our way to our Pool of Siloam – scene of a cure of blindness – seen [pardon the pun!] in the simplicity of the stable near Bethlehem, City of David.
If Hezekiah could do it – if, to the sound of singing – I managed to escape from the darkness to reach the light of Siloam – can we not hope, like that man born-blind – as we look afresh at the Crib – to come to a deeper belief in the mystery of the simplicity of God’s ways – which are not our ways! [Is.55:8]
And so, with the Shepherds – let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord had made known to us [Lk2:15]
May Our Father give light to the eyes of our minds to understand – and to our hearts to offer ourselves in service, with Mary and Joseph – to their newborn Son in our generous sharing this Christmas.
And may we receive God’s grace to continue to be ever more generous in a covid-free 2021 !
Venite adoremus Dominum.
(**) Well worth a google-search on both tunnels…….. cf. Hezekiah [2.5 – Hezekiah’s construction – amazing!]
Fr Michael Sheil SJ