At the beginning of the second week of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius asks the retreatant to call to mind the three persons of the trinity as they “look down upon the whole expanse or circuit of all the earth, filled with human beings.” They decide that the second person of the trinity, “should become man to save the human race” since humankind is in a pretty deplorable state, i.e. “going down to hell.” The retreatant may imagine all sorts of scenarios that might move the three persons of the trinity to send the second one on such a mission of salvation. However, Ignatius says that the retreatant should ask for one thing as a result of this contemplation–”an intimate knowledge of our Lord, who has become man for me, that I may love Him more and follow Him more closely.”
In my own contemplations of this scenario, the three persons of the trinity, in the sending of the Son, are moved by deep love and righteous anger–love for humanity and anger towards the sin that has led to such a terrible state of affairs. Unlike the gods of classical mythology who are constantly coming to earth out of exasperation with humanity, the second person is sent out of love. The more intimately one knows the Lord, the more palpable that love becomes.
Uwem Akpan, a Jesuit of Nigeria, has written a collection of short stories that are undoubtedly informed by Akpan’s own encounter with the grace and dynamics of the first contemplation of the second week. I’ve never met Akpan, and I’m not a spiritual master of the exercises. But I can recognize the fruits of a contemplation on the nativity when I see them. Oprah Winfrey recently chose Akpan’s book, Say You’re One of Them (2008), for her book club’s 2009 selection and with that choice has put Akpan’s book in the hands of many new readers.
From a theological/spiritual point of view, the strength of the book rests in Akpan’s ability to put the reader alongside the holy trinity as they look into the lives of the children of Africa. He has taken the exercises, or, at the very least, the dynamics of the exercises, to an audience of unimaginable size and variety. It’s extraordinarily exciting.
From a literary perspective, the book pleases immensely. The characterization in the first story, “Ex-Mas Feast,” is complex and lovingly drawn. The narrator of that first story tells of being an eight-year-old boy in a family living in the streets of Nairobi. He recollects the Christmas eve scenes without sentimentality or judgment and with only the slightest traces of nostalgia. Some readers have found the some details too harsh (a twelve-year-old prostitute, glue sniffing toddlers, etc.). Akpan never glorifies these actions; he merely presents the cold hard facts. In other words, what else do the three persons of the trinity see when they look upon the slums of the world?
Two things stand out among the literary devices. The title, “Ex-mas Feast,” and the family’s Ex-Mas feast “liturgy” in which they “read” the names of their deceased family members. Regarding the title, something is definately missing: Christ. The family doesn’t abreviate Christmas using the standard shortcut, Xmas. This could still be read as alluding to Christ through the use of the Greek initial X. Instead, the use of “ex” implies removal or exclusion. Something is gone, or better still, not yet arrived on the scene of this family’s feast.
Secondly, during the Christmas eve celebration in the family’s ragged and soiled tent, the mother recites all of the deceased ancestors. This was strangely reminiscent of the many genealogies scattered throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, especially the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel just prior to the scenes of the Nativity. So, in a way, Akpan presents us with a bit of scripture-like narrative. This story like many of the psalms and narratives in the Hebrew Scriptures functions as a lament: a cry to God. By the end of this first story, the reader, the family, and the narrative implicitly cry out to God, where are you?
Finally, the first story provides a thoughtful look at the ravages of both personal and structural sin. Often these two concepts get placed in opposition to one another–there is either personal sin or there is only structural, institutionalized sin. This story shows the interrelatedness of both types of sin. It’s hard to parse the cause of all the family’s hardships–is it the alcoholism of the parents, the lasciviousness of the daughter, the international sex trade, the corrupt government? It’s impossible to find the source of the original sin in this story–and pointless. The need for Christ is overwhelming and that’s the point. Now all that’s left is to wonder when He will come.