"Satchel" Paige was a pitcher in the Negro League during his prime, pitching 50 no-hit games during that time before finally, at age 42, gaining access to the Major Leagues, with both the Indians and the Browns. He was also famous for his aphorisms, as on the occasion when he opined: "Never look back; they might be gaining on you."
This was good advice, from one point of view. It implies that, when adversity is creeping up on you, it’s better not to know about it; otherwise, you might get frightened, lose your cool, and succumb to a very unpromising situation. This probably proves true in many situations.
However, there’s another way of looking at the downside of life: its unpleasantries, its frightening scenarios, its ugliness. It’s comparable to visiting the great American west, with its desert terrain. For city people seeing the desert for the first time, especially in the "dead" time of the year, it’s a real "downer". Nothing to take one’s breath away: just barren wind-swept sand, with a few dead limbs sticking out of the ground, and the rugged, ungainly, colorless cacti dotting the surface, as if to convey the message that they’re too ugly and shapeless to raise the question as to their value or worth. Who cares?
There’s another way of viewing this forsaken piece of territory, however, and that is to revisit the desert at another time of the year, after the seasonal rains have fallen. Then, lo and behold! What a changed spectacle. Flowering cacti decorate the desert floor, a blooming parade of bright colors carpets the ground. Beauty has arrived, pushing ugliness into the realm of forgetfulness.
This happens in areas than just the desert; it also occurs in human life. A personal history riddled with what the prophet Zephaniah portrays in today’s reading: subject to negative judgments against us, surrounded by enemies, frayed by misfortunes, weighted down with discouragement, submerged in disasters: ole’ Satch Paige must have read this prophet and wondered: "why look back at this?".
But wait! Zephaniah hasn’t finished with his prophecy! He goes on to encourage shouts and songs of joy, gladness and exultation as he depicts the Lord supporting us in such trying times.
And this works itself out in the lives of the two women whom Luke’s gospel describes today: Elizabeth and Mary. We catch these women at a happy moment, taking to heart Satch’s advice about not looking back, since they’re coming out of some searing moments: Elizabeth’s long infertile marriage to Zechariah, undoubtedly the butt of catty remarks from her fertile neighbors boasting of their children; Mary, on the verge of pregnancy before living with Joseph. They both travelled paths of thorns. But now they’re blossoming with joy, about to experience the joy of childbirth: a Christmas event for them.
This scene sets us up for the joy of Christmas, on this the shortest day of the year, but long enough to catch the cacti bursting into bloom.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.