Christmas hope is evident even amid the tornado rubble

As Advent leads to Christmas, Nativity scenes will be lovingly assembled in our churches, homes, and neighborhoods. Some will be fine artistic pieces, others the simple creation of a child. But in this year, in this diocese, the Nativity scene with the greatest emotional and spiritual impact may be battered plastic figures salvaged from the rubble of a home in tornado-devastated Washington.

Someone, presumably the homeowners, stood the figures amid the tall piles of wood scraps, ripped drywall, junked appliances, mattresses and insulation near a MacKenzie Street sidewalk. The house that once stood on the lot is gone. So are the other homes on this block. And the next block. And the next. And on and on. The scope of destruction is numbing.

Yet what better place for a Nativity display than a neighborhood so in need of new life and hope?

Indeed, the tornadoes that struck Washington, Gifford, Pekin, East Peoria and other communities around our diocese and the Midwest on Nov. 17 set in motion hundreds of personal stories which find parallels in Bethlehem.

First, there are some 2,000 holy families in central Illinois who, like Joseph and Mary, were displaced and desperate to find rooms at inns or with family and friends. We’ve spoken with many and holy is a fitting description.

Both stories have first responders. In Bethlehem, these were shepherds who saw and heard a choir of angels. In areas hit by the tornadoes, the first responders were individuals often described as angels for how they showed up in the desperate moments after the storms. They were neighbors, firefighters, medical personnel, utility workers and others who heard a chorus of cries for help.

Three wise men bearing gifts? Try 30,000 or more men, women, and children from the east, west, north and south following not a star, but their hearts and consciences. To the families in need they have opened their coffers and presented treasures of money, gift cards, food, clothing, toys, supplies, skills, time, and countless prayers.

King Herod? That’s a tougher one, because local, state, and federal government leaders have risen to the challenge, often heroically. For the villain role, we’ll cast the relatively few scammers and thieves who put greed above compassion.

Finally, what about Baby Jesus? On the day of the tornadoes and in the aftermath, Emmanuel — God with us — was surely present in ways both tangible and mysterious. Many, like Ed Cler in Gifford who spray painted “Jesus saved us” on a wall of his roofless home, claim him as their protector. Others have recognized him in the need of neighbors. He has been felt in the hug from a parishioner. Jesus has been near enough to hear every whispered and unspoken prayer, and the Prince of Peace has offered consolation and promised victory.

As Father Steve Willard told members of St. Patrick Parish in Washington a week after the tornado, Jesus will always be with us. “We’re never alone,” he said.

So set up those Nativity scenes. But as you do, remember the plastic figures in the silent nights of MacKenzie Street in Washington. What rubble do we need to clear away to prepare the way of the Lord this Christmas? What role are we playing in the continuing story of salvation? How are we helping Jesus to be born in our lives, our families, our parishes, our communities? — Text and photo by Thomas J. Dermody

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