November/December 2005

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

As I approach the season of Advent this year, my mind looks ahead to the Feast of the Epiphany and the encounter of the Magi with the mystery of the Incarnation. Our awareness of their journey and experience leads us to reflect on the purpose of that encounter.

What occurred prefigures our own spiritual growth when we begin to recognize epiphanies in our own lives. It also recalls the central theme of the spirituality of Saint Francis, namely continual conversion, which he called the life of penance.

They departed to their own country by another way.

– Matt. 2: 12

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There are two stories in scripture that are about humanity in relation to Jesus when the Word became flesh (Cf. John 1: 14). The first involves the poor and the other, people of privilege.

The first is to be found in Luke’s gospel (Cf. 2: 15-20). There is a tradition of understanding the story of the shepherds as stressing that the lowly were singled out as the recipients of God’s favour and blessings. The angel called them first, and bade them to “not be afraid.” The angel went on to say, “Behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all people.” That means for you and I. They heard the call first, and they took the chance to seek out this Messiah and Lord present to humanity in the most unlikely form: “You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Their call was spiritual and geared to who they were.

The second such encounter is to be found in Matthew’s Gospel (Cf. 2: 1-12). It involves three learned men – either kings or astrologers that we call Magi. These had made the journey, not based on the revelation of an angel but based on information that they had garnered from the science of their day. They too had a call and, despite the ridicule that they would have faced in setting out on such a long journey, they responded with courage.

The Magi set out on a trip that would change them forever. They sought advice, and ignored the bad advice that they got from Herod. They showed themselves to be men with open minds and generous hearts. They were likely amazed but not incredulous at the fact of finding the Son of God in the form of a child, poor and rejected, lying in a smelly manger. Matthew tells us “they prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then, they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

After of time of risk and excursion, followed by a moment of sheer euphoria, came an instant of spiritual insight. In a dream, they were warned to not return to Herod. Matthew tells us, “They departed for their country by another way.”

“God so loved the world that he sent his only son …so that we may have eternal life”, which means a life that stretched beyond the borders of our limited ego into endless possibilities for experiencing and causing goodness and joy. “Blessed are the poor in Sprit, for there’s is this kingdom” of endless possibilities for experiencing and causing goodness and joy.

The poor are with us still. “They will always be with us”, says Jesus, meaning that, in his infinite mercy, God never ceases to give us opportunities to see Christ poor and rejected, and to embrace him with affection and gifts.

No one in the world today is poorer in body and spirit that those living with AIDS in Africa. I can tell you from having traveled to remote clinics and district hospitals that the situation is so severe that it is very painful to watch. The issues that surround it are so complex that it is sometimes difficult to keep hope alive.

But hope does stubbornly hang on. It lives in the children. So far, the AIDS epidemic has left behind an estimated 15 million orphans. Around 80 per cent of these AIDS orphans live in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, many still have the capacity to smile and to face daunting difficulties with hope. [1]

In African countries that have already had long, severe epidemics, AIDS is generating orphans so quickly that family structures can no longer cope. Traditional safety nets are unraveling as more young adults die of AIDS related illnesses. Families and communities can barely fend for themselves, let alone take care of the orphans. Typically, half of the people with HIV become infected before they are aged 25, developing AIDS and dying by the time they are aged 35, leaving behind a generation of children to be raised by their grandparents or left on their own in child-headed households.

Of the many vulnerable members of society, young people who have lost one or both parents are among the most exposed of all. And this is particularly true in sub-Saharan Africa, where few social support systems exist outside of families and where basic social services are largely inadequate. There is a concern that they might come to constitute a ‘lost generation’ of young people who have been marginalized and excluded for much of their lives.

Efforts to protect children orphaned by AIDS are nearly as old as the epidemic, and many are beginning to show real progress. Several of these encouraging efforts have taken place in Malawi, one of the poorest countries and one of the 10 most affected countries in terms of HIV prevalence. The AIDS crisis has had a crippling impact on the country’s children and UNAIDS estimated that Malawi had 500,000 children orphaned by AIDS at the end of 2003.

There are many community organizations run by volunteers in Malawi. In rural and urban areas across Malawi, communities are developing a variety of ways to cope with the growing crisis of AIDS orphans. Village orphan committees have been established in many villages to monitor the local situation and to take collective action to assist those in need. Anti-AIDS clubs have also been created to educate communities about HIV/AIDS transmission and prevention, as well as to address the needs of those infected with the virus.

The AIDS orphan crisis in Malawi is a daunting challenge for the country and its government and resources are lacking in Malawi to handle the HIV/AIDS epidemic as a whole. Lack of administrative capacity at the national level coupled with inadequate resources has made it difficult for the Government to keep up with the growing epidemic.

Poverty is a huge problem in Malawi and it estimated that 65 per cent of the people live below the poverty line. Malawi is one of the poorest southern African countries and has been facing acute food shortages due to severe regional drought. Many people are unable to take on the responsibilities of extra children because they are already strained.

Pure and undefiled religion is to care for orphans and widows in their distress.

– James 1:27

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The situation of us in relation to people living with AIDS in Africa reminds me in many ways of the encounter that Saint Francis had with lepers. Meeting them, spending time with them, was an epiphany. He retuned by another way.

This is how the Lord gave me, brother Francis, the power to do penance. When I was in sin the sight of lepers was too bitter for me. And the Lord himself led me among them, and I pitied and helped them. And when I left them I discovered that what had seemed bitter to m e was changed into sweetness in my soul and body. And shortly afterward I rose and left the world.

– Francis of Assisi, Testament (First paragraph)

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May the Advent season be for you a time to meditate upon the awesome reality of God’s presence among us. May the child Jesus bless you with the grace of seeing his warm smiling face in the poor and the lepers of our own day. May the Prince of Peace share with you the Joy of giving to them what you would give to him.

Fraternally,

richard

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[1] Sources of the information on AIDS in Africa that appears in this reflection are AVERT, an international HIV and AIDS charity based in the United Kingdom, and the Southern African Regional Poverty Network in South Africa.