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Homily - Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God World Day of Peace 2023 - Bishop McKeown


Sunday, 1st January 2023

Today we celebrate the 8th day of Christmas – but it has nothing whatever to do with eight maids a milking! We are still celebrating the mystery of God who took human flesh and dwelt among us. The beginning of a new calendar year is always a chance to look back on what we have learned in our lived experience during 2022 – and how we can generate hope for our fragile human condition in 2023. Pope Francis, in his message for World Day of Peace suggests that we ask what we have learned about ourselves from the origins of Covid and of the war in Ukraine – and how we might reflect on our response to these man-made disasters that have affected the whole human race. If we don't learn from the past, we simply repeat the same mistakes.

The key theme of Pope Francis' message for today is essentially the message of Christmas – in Jesus, God-with-us, Emmanuel, we can face the problems that affect the world only by doing it together with God and with one another. However, that is not easy. Covid and the effects of war have shown up the effects of consumerism and individualism, namely huge gaps between the haves and the have nots. We have seen the obscene wealth and power that a few individuals and corporations have. We have experienced how the behind the scenes money markets put limits on what governments can do. We have heard too many gross examples of a scramble for political power, with little obvious sense of public service. We all know of the destruction that is ravaging too many young people because of addictions, poor role models, semi-detached relationships, domestic violence and serious distress – and we know that we are not really supposed to mention these realities as it would curb the sacred guiding principle for the new ruling class, the right to choose, no matter how destructive the outcome.

But Pope Francis does not want us to remain weighed down by the constant diet of bad news. He invites us to reflect whether we will emerge from these difficult years stronger or none the wiser. Can we learn from the fact that we feel helpless when seeing millions starving and in dire poverty– but that we were suddenly able to access unimaginable sums of money in the hands of the rich to fight Covid or to kill thousands and raze cities to the ground in Eastern Europe? Will crises drive us into our self-protective bunkers, stockpiling everything for ourselves– or can we recognise, as Pope Francis writes, that the many moral, social, political and economic crises we are experiencing are all interconnected, and what we see as isolated problems are actually causes and effects of one another?War, famine, disease and social breakdown are all interlinked. We can do better than merely try to be the winners in a heartless rat race.

All of this is a challenge to political leaders around the world. So often they seem to believe that all they can do is propose new ways to divide up the financial resources of government. The Christmas message about Emmanuel says that the inequalities and sin of the world will be faced down, not merely by growing the economy but by renewing the relationships that hold our communities together. St Paul writes in today's second reading that God has sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts so that each one of us can discover our dignity as a child of the eternal Father.In Northern Ireland it is easy to spout simplistic solutions about bringing the two big traditions together - but not mention the glass ceilings between the wealthy and those who struggle. It is always easy to propose policies about bad behaviour in less well-off areas – and fail to recognise that social and educational structures which benefit those in the front row of society actually contribute to poverty of aspiration for those who have to sit in the back rows - or stand outside the door. A better 2023 will not be born from promoting antagonism and superficial policies. Renewal will come when leaders, by their words and actions, challenge us to be great human beings and to champion our shared humanity. Mere competent penny pushers will never inspire or create hope. Can we challenge our political leaders to learn that lesson from the last few very difficult years?

But we have to do more than berate who would seek to manage the country. Our Church, too, is seeking to renew itself for a mission in this rapidly changing world. It is not easy to change in order to be more obviously Christ-centred. We are tempted to do things the way that suits us rather than allowing ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit into uncomfortable places. But Jesus came in a concrete place and time. He wants us to work with grace to change the world and not merely to stand on the side lines and criticise. We are called to make known the love and mercy of God in our concrete world of much pain and anger. We are called to proclaim freedom, not as the right to do anything but as the ability to make wise free decisions that promote human dignity and serve the Common Good. The right to choose evil and destruction has nothing to do with the freedom that Jesus brings. In a lonely world, we are called to promote what Pope John Paul II called a 'spirituality of communion' which builds acceptance and community so that people can grow in grace. If we want to be peacemakers and not just peace-wishers, we have to gather often – at home, with others and in church – to let God form and reform our hearts. Without prayer and silent adoration, we will cling to comforting structures but never discover Jesus whose name means 'God Saves'.

On this first day of the year, can we look back prayerfully on the past with insight into lessons learned and with forgiveness for the mistakes made? And then we can face 2023 and all its challenges with courage and hope. May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord let his face shine on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord uncover his face to you and bring you peace.

+ Donal McKeown

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