Christmas: Celebrating the Greatest Border Crossing of All

by Melannie Svoboda SND on December 21, 2015

In 2002 I attended a month-long conference in Korea with about 30 other Sisters of Notre Dame from all over the world. While there I had the opportunity to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the 155-mile border between North and South Korea.

The group of SND’s in Korea in 2002. (I’m in the bottom row, third from the left.)

The DMZ, which is about two miles wide, is supposedly the most heavily fortified border in the world. It is an eerie place, a veritable “no man’s land” where (ironically) wild life flourishes because there are no humans there to disturb it. The highlight of that visit for me was when we Sisters, standing at the very edge of that border and gazing into North Korea, spontaneously sang together (in three part harmony) Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace). It was a very moving experience for me and a fitting song to sing at a fortified border that no one dares to cross.

That experience caused me to reflect on other borders—such as the ones in scripture. Abraham left the security of his native land and journeyed across many borders into Canaan. The Hebrews, under the leadership of Moses, crossed the border of the Red Sea in their quest for freedom. Years later their descendants crossed the border of the Jordan River into the Promised Land. In our own day, refugees from the Mideast are pouring across the borders into Europe at grave peril to themselves. As daring as all of these border crossings are, they pale in comparison to the greatest border crossing of all that lies at the heart of our faith: the Incarnation.

We are standing at the border looking directly into North Korea. This is where we sang "Dona Nobis Pacem."

We are standing at the border in South Korea, looking directly across the DMZ into North Korea. This is where we sang Dona Nobis Pacem.

Christmas celebrates this border crossing of God. It celebrates God becoming a human being. God crossing the border between heaven and earth, between divinity and humanity. Unfortunately, we sometimes take the Incarnation for granted. As the writer Brennan Manning has said, we fail “to quake at the inbreak of God Almighty.” In doing so we “rob Christmas of its shock value.” Father Ronald Rolheiser adds that we tend to reduce the Incarnation to something that happened 2,000 years ago. But, he says, the Incarnation was not a thirty-three year experiment nor was it a one-shot deal. Jesus continues to live through all time, in all places, and in all people.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus showed that he was a radical border crosser. He crossed the borders of convention by associating with all kinds of people: Jew and Gentile, men and women, rich and poor, sick and healthy. In addition, Jesus challenged his followers to cross borders. “Love one another,” he said over and over again, fully aware that only love has the power to break down barriers that separate us from one another.

One quality that encourages border crossing is the gift of empathy. Monka Hellweig, in her book Guests of christmas-card-574742__180God, writes, “The human capacity for empathy is the ability to cross over a kind of bridge of imagination into the experience of another person.” With empathy, we can recognize cruelty because we can imagine the pain and suffering of the other. Similarly, we recognize kindness because we can imagine the joy it brings.

This Christmas, let us make time to reflect on the “shock value” of the event we are commemorating. Let us also humbly identify the borders that we—as individuals, local communities, and even nations—have erected to keep others out. Let us beg God for the gift of empathy that enables us to imagine the experience of another and to respond in love. And let us pray…

Jesus, Incarnate One,

you stand at the edge of our borders,

those lines we have drawn with such deliberation, 

those walls we have erected out of fear.

And you say, “Cross over!”

And we say, “I can’t… I’m too afraid.” And you say, “I understand your fear. But come! I will be with you.”

Loving Jesus, help us to be border crossers as you are.

Help us to use the bridge of our imagination to empathize with others,

especially those who are different from ourselves and those in need.

Give us courage to invite others into the sacred space of who we are

and into our homes and communities.

And when death, that final border crossing, comes,

may we step trustingly and joyfully into the fullness of your love. Amen.

 

For Christmas I am offering you too beautiful songs that, for me, capture the “shock value” of the Incarnation. The first song is “Mary Did You Know?” sung by Kenny Rogers and Wyonna Judd. This version posts the lyrics of the song against a canopy of stars alternating with beautiful Madonnas. The second song is “Joseph’s Lullaby” by the Christian rock band, Mercyme. This song sees the first Christmas from Joseph’s perspective. At this time I want to thank you again for reading my blog. And I wish all of you and your loved ones a very Merry Christmas!

 

Have you ever crossed a border between two countries? If so, what kind of an experience was that like for you?

Have you ever crossed another kind of border, for example, a border of convention, a border of fear, a border bridged by empathy? Would you be willing to share any of that experience with us?

What impresses or touches you the most about Christmas?

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen December 21, 2015 at 5:46 am

Beautiful reflection Sr. Melannie.

I have crossed the border of forgiveness with God’s grace. Sometimes what is needed is trust and prayer to get us across.

Merry Christmas!
Kathleen

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 24, 2015 at 10:12 am

Dear Kathleen, You mentioned one of the most difficult borders to cross: the border of forgiveness… Thank us for that example and for your wise advice. Sr. Melannie

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Susan December 21, 2015 at 9:08 am

Merry Christmas Sister Melanie! I loved your reflection and will ponder in my own heart the borders I have erected in my own life during these final days of Advent.

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 24, 2015 at 10:11 am

Thank you for writing, Susan! Sr. Melannie

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Suzanne Sayer December 21, 2015 at 9:14 am

Thank you for this wonderful reflection. Merry Christmas!

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 24, 2015 at 10:10 am

You’re welcome!

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Josita December 21, 2015 at 9:34 am

Dear Melannie,
I never thought of Jesus’ birth as a border crossing…how beautiful!
It has given me a lot of food for thought in my own life.
I am always humbled and exalted at the same time to know that God wants me to continue to bring Christ to birth in my own life for others.
I love both of these songs and also love ” Joseph’s Song” by Michael Card.
I guess I’ m partial because Joseph is my patron.
I wish you all the blessings of Christ this Christmas and always.
Thanks for continuing to inspire me.
Josita

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 24, 2015 at 10:10 am

Dear Josita, Thank you for writing! I used Michael Card’s “Joseph’s Song” last year on my blog. I love that song too! Melannie

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Steve Henry December 21, 2015 at 10:26 am

Sister, I spent two Christmases in Korea as a member of the U.S. Army. We were stationed at Chunchon and because we were a Trucking Battalion, we did a good deal of supplying units. And when I first arrived in 1953, we trucked back some of the war-weary veterans from the front lines.

I was fortunate to obtain the Chaplain’s jeep to ride into Chunchon and attend Christmas Mass those two holy days.

Many shenanigans occurred along and on the DMZ. The north Koreans actually dug a tunnel under a portion of the Zone. And there were skirmishes of gunfire.

Now it would be soul-satisfying if wars ended and we lived in peace. As I think back to my growing up years, about the only peaceful period followed the end of World War II and the start of Korean Conflict. We need more periods of peace!
Steve Henry

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 24, 2015 at 10:09 am

Dear Steve, Wow! What experiences you must have had in Korea! I was touched that you celebrated Mass there in the midst of that terrible “conflict.” I share your deep longings for world peace… My prayer becomes even more urgent during this season when we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace into our midst. Thanks for writing, Steve, and for your service those many years ago in Korea! Sr. Melannie

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Jean December 21, 2015 at 10:37 am

Dearest Melanie,
Beautiful, once again.
Thank you.
Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year to you and your loved ones.
Jean

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 24, 2015 at 10:05 am

Thank you, Jean!

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Doris December 21, 2015 at 10:39 am

The best Christmas reflection ever! Thank you. I am inspired by all the comments, as well. Merry Christmas!

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 24, 2015 at 10:04 am

I’m so glad the Holy Spirit can use my simple words to touch your heart, Doris! Thanks for responding! Sr. Melannie

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Patty December 21, 2015 at 11:37 am

Thank you, Sister.

Merry Christmas.

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 24, 2015 at 10:04 am

You’re welcome, Patty!

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Deb December 21, 2015 at 11:50 am

I placed a border around my heart, to protect me from pain, the pain from my God (I thought). In the two weeks before Thanksgiving, my husband lost his job of 19 years, my dad was hospitalized, my mom’s dementia continues to rob her of peace, my youngest brother was admitted back in to the State Hospital for mental health treatment, my niece was in jail, and a young friend was clinging to life in the hospital. I thought back to what the past five years has presented to my life. It was five years ago today that my father in law took his last breath on his beloved farm as his daughter watched helplessly. In the next five months after, it would bring the suicide of my nephew, a stillborn grandson three weeks later, and my youngest son’s wedding right in the middle. Six weeks later my niece took the life of her unborn child, and a few months later one of my closest and dearest friend took his last breath on this earth. In time, God did pull me out of my pit of grief. However, now as I faced this new set of life circumstances, I looked back not on being pulled out of that grief pit and God holding me close, but instead at how God seemed to not answer my prayers. I put up my border, a steep and jagged one. My young friend is still clinging to life in the hospital, my sister in law being very distraught over this as she is very close to her. In my words of comfort to my sister in law, I found God speaking to me. I knew what I needed to do. I reached up and climbed over that border I had created. It was not pain from my God that I needed to protect myself, because as I climbed over that border, inch by inch, I found only peace. Yes, God loves me, and God is close. I pray for all who put up self-made borders, to find courage and strength to climb over and know of God’s love and peace.

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Cathy Baier December 23, 2015 at 6:55 am

The Lord is close to the broken hearted. Ps.34:19

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 24, 2015 at 9:48 am

This is one of my favorite lines from the psalms. Thanks for sending it, Cathy! Melannie

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 24, 2015 at 10:03 am

Dear Deb, My heart goes out to you! You certainly have suffered greatly! My readers and I are holding you in special prayer. May you, in the midst of your heartache and pain, feel God’s presence and supportive love. Sr. Melannie

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Gus December 21, 2015 at 12:44 pm

Sister, I loved this meditation and reflections. Whenever I listen I understand and when I share the lyrics I feel the presence of Jesus with His Mother. In my old age I pray I did it right throughout my years so one day I may share the salvation given. Thank you Sister for sharing your gifts with us. Merry Christmas and a Glorious Joyful 2016! Peace to all.

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 24, 2015 at 10:01 am

And peace to you too, Gus! Thanks for writing again! Sr. Melannie

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Karen December 21, 2015 at 2:04 pm

Another thought provoking reflection Sr Melannie. I have erected borders with my own family – both for self protection and as a stand against destructive values we do not share. During this time of year it is always particularly sad – I know we are all the poorer for these borders. I would humbly ask for your prayers for our family!

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 24, 2015 at 10:00 am

Dear Karen, Your comment raises an important point: certain “borders” are necessary in our lives. As you alluded to, there are borders that keep destructive values and forces from entering our hearts. But we also erect many other borders that prevent us from responding in love to others’ needs…I’m remembering your family in my prayer. Sr. Melannie

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Julie Grote December 21, 2015 at 2:42 pm

Thanks, Kathleen, The songs were just precious. I did cross the border between the US & Mexico once in a car. I was alone and got in the wrong lane. I could not speak Spanish and it was not too easy to find someone who spoke English to tell me how to get back to the US. My guardian angel was with me and helped me allay my fears.
A blessed Christmas season & a Spirit-filled New Year.

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 24, 2015 at 9:55 am

What a frightening experience you had, Julie! Whenever we don’t speak the language of those around us we are at a great disadvantage, not so? Thank you for telling us your significant “border crossing experience.” Melannie

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Sunnie Poplar December 21, 2015 at 3:19 pm

Thank you Sister for blessing us every week.
Wishing you, your family, and your community all the joy and blessings of this Holy Season.

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 24, 2015 at 9:51 am

Thank you, Sunnie, for reading my blog every week too! Sr. Melannie

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David Cavilla December 22, 2015 at 1:36 am

I love that song “Mary Did You Know”…despite criticisms of its lyrics which allegedly detract from the dogma of the Immaculate Conception…”the babe that you delivered will soon deliver you”. I don’t think Mary worried about such details…nor should we. Peace and Merry Christmas!

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 24, 2015 at 9:50 am

Dear David, I love the song too. And I must admit, I never thought of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception with those words. Like you, I think Mary didn’t worry abut such details… Thanks for writing! Melannie

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Barbara December 22, 2015 at 9:13 am

Thank you for all you do. Have a joyous Christmas. I read and have to share, “God is present and at work fully in every millimeter of space and every moment of time; time is the moving shadow of eternity.” He is with us, always, through everything and in everything.

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 24, 2015 at 9:49 am

Dear Barbara, What a beautiful quote! Thanks for sharing it with us! Melannie

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Cathy Baier December 23, 2015 at 6:59 am

The Holy Spirit keeps at work on our hearts to dismantle the walls we have built up. I pray to be open to His promptings.
Joy,peace and hope to all this Christmas!

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 24, 2015 at 9:47 am

Amen, Cathy! Melannie

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Tom December 23, 2015 at 3:04 pm

Since once person’s speed bump can be a nine-foot wall to the next person, I would offer the following border crossings: giving/accepting hugs, learning to say, “I am sorry,” looking someone in the eye or even addressing another by name. Any border of any size is worth crossing.

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Melannie Svoboda SND December 24, 2015 at 9:47 am

Thank you, Tom, for reminding us that what constitutes a border, differs from person to person. Your specific examples are fine ones! Melannie

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JoAnn Welch December 27, 2015 at 2:13 pm

Sister, thank you for this beautiful reflection. This gives hope to all of us, as I think the human condition will always present borders whether physical, mental, spiritual…Jesus certainly met his challenges with borders and offers us an example to follow. Hope is on our side!!!

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Leonard Viggiano December 29, 2015 at 6:06 pm

I never heard” Joseph’s Song” before. It ‘s beautiful. It may me think about Joseph and what a great man he must have been to accept the responsibility God gave him and why many are so devoted to him.

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