“Convertirse al amor que nos visita”
In 1977, in the country named after our Lord (El Salvador), St. Oscar Romero greeted those in attendance and listening over the radio as he preached on Christmas Eve (using the same texts prescribed in the ACNA’s lectionary for Christmas: Isaiah 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14).
Now, as a Latino priest myself, Romero is a personal hero. It’s ridiculous to admit this, but when our parish began broadcasting our service to those in the parking lot, I thought, “wow, I’m a little more like him.” In this brief reflection on Romero’s Christmas Eve homily originally delivered in 1977, I hope to make accessible his brilliant and bright message. His voice carries a pastoral and prophetic timbre that, 43 years later in Christmastide, is still relevant and fruit-bearing for our present moment in North America.
St. Romero wasn’t the “revolutionary” type. In fact, he was someone who sought to avoid disruption and instead aimed at fostering civility between the helpless poor and privileged powerful in the 1970s in El Salvador. As a young priest, he was always a friend of los campesinos (lower class farmers) and the working class. He resisted confronting the powerful despite the urging of some of his closest friends, until he witnessed the slaughter of the innocent poor in the mid-seventies, followed by the murder of one of his best friends, Fr. Rutillio Grande, in 1977.
At Fr. Rutillio’s funeral, Romero exposed the evils of the Salvadorian government and condemned its violence. But the power of his witness was most clearly seen when juxtaposing this oppression and violence beside the witness of “a church that walks peacefully because we carry within us the force of love.”
Later that same year, in the same dark and painful context, Romero delivered a luminous Christmas message,
“It seems as though on this night…the angels are singing for the first time over our people…And it seems as though people are hearing for the first time and being surprised by the good news…”
The news was that “God has injected himself into history” and that his kingdom is “inaugurated in human time.” For Romero, the Christmas event wasn’t a heavenly pain-killer for those suffering, but a great light that has come to expose just how far from the divine presence the world has strayed.
In other words, the arriving Light not only exposes the unjust but is also born into the deepest solidarity with those who suffer. Christ is born into the real-world political, economic, ethnic, and religious strife as a savior to all—both those caught under the world’s violence, and those caught-up as administers of it. The Good News is that His birth has come to us as a sure sign—not a suggestion of possible outcomes of history or a revolution that the powers could put down—but a sure sign that the world’s Savior has come (Luke 2:14).
Romero’s Christmas message, like all of his preaching, possessed this non-threatened and humble swagger that relayed an indisputable headline: God’s kingdom is here. This brown saint consistently made the call to all people “convertirse” (be converted) to the God who is now,
“…walking with humans in history; we are not alone on our journey. We can hope for peace and justice and a kingdom of divine right; we can hope for something holy and far beyond earthly realities, not because we humans can create this blessing proclaimed by God’s sacred words but because God is already in the midst of humanity, building a kingdom of justice and love and peace.”
What are the faithful do with such news? What about the darkness of the present?
Romero points to the bright hope for humankind, who may now walk in darkness, but on Christmas are given a great light (Isa 9:1). Those suffering are reminded that they are not alone but are accompanied by Jesus. In Christ, those suffering needlessly are joined to sacred history, who in his humanity gathers together “all that has been sown in suffering and pain.” The protest then takes on great joy (Titus 2:13), knowing that Christ will come again, and Romero assures the faithful, “that kingdom of justice will come. That kingdom of peace will come.”
This assurance animates the church all the more, not to be joyfully disengaged but fearlessly and lovingly truth-telling. The church’s witness, as Romero keenly names it, involves “the responsibility to criticize and analyze the kingdoms of earth and bring people to an awareness that they are still lacking in justice and peace and effectiveness. Only when Christ, the true King announced by God, becomes truly king of all hearts will the reign that God desires become a reality.”
Christmas reminds us that God’s anointed did not come in the daytime but in the night, not in the seats of power and not to the proud, but in the small town where God anoints kings and to a lowly virgin.
Carrying the salutary wounds of the poor and of his friend, Fr. Rutillio, the archbishop preached in the darkness of the night, waiting for and witnessing to the God who was making good on His promise to establish his kingdom, “…to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore…” (Isa. 9:7b).
This was the basis for the church’s witness. Not the pain of the night, but the hope of the light, our “hope against all hope,” as Romero puts it, “Let us not be discouraged even when the horizon of history appears dark and closed off, as if human realities made it impossible for God’s plans to be accomplished….”
Romero was no naive idealist; this light isn’t hung in the night sky by human beings. Instead, it is a revelation given as a “light that shines brilliantly in Bethlehem,” a promise that God is making real through his Son.
Christmas isn’t a time to pretend everything is fine, and no amount of eggnog and lights can drown out our society’s terrible wounds. But the late saint, who was himself assassinated at the altar for his subversive witness, relays a message of hope to us today—God walks with you in the dark, and this Christmas leads us to the “crib of a God-child,” where
“a sincere conversion to Christ is necessary; we must be converted to the love that has visited us; we must echo the infinite goodness of God who brings us redemption. Let us not reject redemption! Let us not be darkness! Let our hearts be open like a cradle so that Christ can be born in each soul tonight and from there flood every heart with light. Then we will sing with the angels the news that we must bring to all people, to the whole of society, and to the whole of the nation: ‘Today a Savior has been born to you!’ (Luke 2:11).”
I’ll let the good bishop leave us with an episcopal blessing in his own words,
“Hermanos, with this message of God’s glory and peace to humankind, I want to say to you, backed by the divine word: ¡Feliz Navidad!”
Find Romero’s homily online here: Romero, St. Oscar, Today A Savior Is Born To You, delivered Christmas Eve, 24 December, 1977 (Isaiah 9:1-6 Titus 2:11-14 Luke 2:1-14). http://www.romerotrust.org.uk/homilies-and-writings/homilies/today-saviour-born-you