What are saints for? They are first of all meant, often in their extremity, to challenge the domestication of our faith: in this they are in the line of John the Baptist. In the Hawaiian islands of 1873, to minister on Molokai, the colony of lepers, was a death sentence. And this was not all. That place of despair was subject to lawlessness, licentiousness, and cruelty. The head of the Jesuit order asked the assembled members if anyone was willing to serve there: every one raised his hand in the room. The one chosen was the short, bespectacled, intense priest named Damien.
The second thing saints do is to show us something, not about themselves but about Jesus Christ: here too John comes to mind! It is in this regard that we may visualize his arrival. The ship put down anchor some distance from the shore, lest the contagion come near them. The priest waded ashore. There on the beach one could see them, missing a leg, an arm, hands, parts of their faces, watching impassively as this man approached them. The first months were hard, mutinous, as Damien tried to exercise oversight and authority over the community. And then, a year-in, came the decisive moment. It was, I believe Easter morning. Damien stood up and began his sermon with the words “we lepers.”
It may have been Easter, but it should have been Christmas. For it was the mystery of the incarnation toward which his life had become a sign. Jesus Christ, though without sin, took on our mortal condition. And he also took on the consequence of our sin, Paul going so far as to say, “he became sin who knew no sin…” Damien doctrine is not some theory, but lived out in the bone. He, like Christ, loved them to the end. In this season, we recall that Jesus Christ became a leper among us lepers. The incarnation as his coming down low is the most beautiful thing that could be, and so shows us the beauty intended in our creation by God.
Christmastide is the feast day fullest with popular expressions of all sorts, from all cultures. And this is as it should be, for He entered our condition, our culture, our misery and our glory. And it is in this light that we can see, with the help of someone like Damien, how simple, deep, hard, beautiful, all of our ministries truly are.