The prophet Isaiah tells us that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined.” I wonder if you have ever lived in a land of deep darkness, feeling quite lost and abandoned. I wonder if you have ever had the experience, in the depths of this darkness, of a love so powerful that it illuminated your path and warmed your heart. Where did you discover the signs of this light, the first slender rays of its dawning?
Rosa and Drago Sorak, a Bosnia Serb couple living in the Muslim enclave of Gorazde during the height of the ethnic conflict there between Serbs and Muslims, discovered the light in a most unexpected place: Fedil Fejzic’s cow.(1)
It was a time of deep darkness for Rosa and Drago. Though they were Bosnian Serbs, they rejected Serbian nationalist propaganda and refused to align themselves with the Serbian forces seeking to occupy Bosnia. Even when the Serbian forces laid siege to Gorazde in 1992, they refused to leave their home. Their fellow Serbs considered them traitors. Their Muslim neighbors considered them enemies.
Life in Gorazde became a living hell as Serbian forces shelled the city daily, cutting off electricity, gas, and water. The death toll mounted and food became scarce, but the Sorak’s persevered. When their son, Zoran, was taken by the local Muslim police for interrogation, they remained with their pregnant daughter-in-law. Zoran was never seen again. Shortly thereafter, their second son, who fought with the Serbians, was killed.
Muslim gangs began to loot the city, harassing and killing their Serbian neighbors, forcing the Sorak’s into hiding on many nights. Then, five months after Zoran’s disappearance, his wife gave birth to a baby girl, but she was unable to nurse her. As the siege continued, food became increasingly scarce. The very young, the very old, and the very sick began to die in droves. For five days, Rosa and Drago had nothing but tea to nourish their new granddaughter. The infant began to die.
Meanwhile, Fedil Fejzic, one of their Muslim neighbors, was keeping his cow in a field and milking it at night to avoid being hit by Serbian sniper fire. Rosa Sorak reports that “On the fifth day, just before dawn, we heard someone at the door. It was Fadil Fejzic in his black rubber boots. He handed up half a liter of milk. He came the next morning, and the morning after that, and after that. Other families on the street began to insult him. They told him to give his milk to Muslims, to let the Chetnik children die. He never said a word. He refused our money. He came for 442 days, until my daughter-in-law and granddaughter left Gorazde for Serbia.”
Eventually, Drago and Rosa also left Gorazde. They mourned their dead sons and never forgot the terrors visited upon them by their Muslim neighbors. But as they told war correspondent Chris Hedges, who recorded their story, “they could not listen to other Serbs talking about Muslims or even recite their own sufferings, without telling of Fejzic and his cow. Here was the power of love. What this illiterate farmer did would color the life of another human being, who might never meet him, long after he was gone. In his act lay an ocean of hope.”
“It is our duty to always tell this story,” Drago Sorak said. “Salt, in those days cost $80 a kilo. The milk he had was precious, all the more so because it was hard to keep animals. He gave us 221 liters. And every year at this time, when it is cold and dark, when we close our eyes, we can hear the boom of the heavy guns and the sound of Fadil Fejzic’s footsteps on the stairs.”
This is how the light of God, the power of love, breaks into our deepest darkness: in great humility, in obscurity, in barely discernible signs of humanity revealed in the actions of the most unlikely people. Fadil comes in the early morning, with the first rays of light after a long and painful dark night of the soul, to bring gifts to a vulnerable child. It is only this simple peasant, keeping his cow by night, who recognizes the sign and hope of humanity in this newborn infant. Drago and Rosa, like Mary in the story of Jesus’ nativity, are still treasuring this experience and pondering its meaning in their hearts.
Where do we locate the signs of light in this story? Surely, in Fadil, who like the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel, recognizes the glory of God in the sign of a child wrapped in bands of cloth and comes to pay homage to the new life she brings. It isn’t simply Fadil’s compassionate self-giving that is striking; we might expect as much among family and friends. It is the fact that he is a stranger, even an enemy, willing to risk reputation and the censure of his own people, which gives such brilliance to the light he brings. There is something miraculous about the light shining through the cracks in the walls that are meant to divide us.
Yet, it seems to me that the light shines in Rosa and Drago as well; from their side of the crack in the wall, if you will. Something in them allows them to be open to receive Fadil’s gift; in spite of the fact that he is the “wrong” nationality and religion; in spite of the fact that they have endured more than their share of pain and loss and despair. There is something of great power and beauty in their refusal to harden their hearts and cling to a sense of being victims. They have been hurt, yes; but they have not taken their identity from their pain, but rather from their continuing capacity for relationship with the other.
I think here of Joseph and Mary, stigmatized for being pregnant out of wedlock, poor and unable to secure a safe place to stay after a long and arduous journey. It would have been all too easy for them to be defended against these strange shepherds who disturb their uneasy sleep with unbelievable good news. There is something miraculous about the light shining through our refusal to be defined by the worst thing that has happened to us. Sometimes, the bare willingness to receive the support of another is enough to kindle a flame in the darkness.
What is most strange, and most like God, are the two helpless infants in these stories. What is the source of their light? What is it in them that draws Fadil and the shepherds, bringing together strangers and reconciling enemies? What is it about them that brings peace on earth, an end to the boots of the tramping warriors and the garments rolled in blood? It is, I think, the capacity of their sheer vulnerability to evoke compassion.
This is the astonishing thing about the Incarnation, God becoming flesh in Jesus: that God should love us so much, desiring us to be reconciled with Him and with one another, that He would become utterly vulnerable so as to arouse our compassion and awaken us to our common humanity. It is the vulnerability of God, revealed first in the manger and ultimately on the Cross, that makes the light of the Resurrection shine all the more brightly.
Here is a great mystery: we bear God’s image mostly brilliantly in our being vulnerable as God is vulnerable. Were it otherwise, we could not be compassionate as God is compassionate. It is through our capacity to embrace our vulnerability – recognizing in it our common humanity – that the light of God shines most brightly in our lives.
This is the good news that Joseph and Mary and the shepherds welcomed when God came among them in such great humility. This is the source of the light that Drago and Rosa and Fadil were able to perceive in the midst of deep darkness. The Christmas story is our story, the story of how love comes among us with such power to light our darkness. Like Drago Sorak, we have an obligation to tell this story, so that every year at this time, when it is cold and dark, when we close our eyes, we can hear the boom of the heavy guns and – and – the sound of the footsteps of all the world’s Fadils on the stairs, coming to bear witness to the power of love.
(1) This story is reported in Chris Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, pp. 50-53.