St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
Christmas Day retains its fascination, not just for the children in our midst but for the child in all of us. The little ones dream of wonderful things and a beautiful world – and the adults among us are still intrigued by the possibility of the world being different. The Christmas story is not just a silly hangover from a Christian past. It is a story that encapsulates many of the themes run very deep in human history. So what might that perennial story say to us this year?
Firstly, many people are understandably pessimistic about lots of things in the year ahead. There is a doubt that politics can solve the real problems of poverty, crime, homelessness and injustice around the world. Economic prospects look worrying, especially for the poor in our society. Apparently the least well off will have to put up with more austerity to clear up the mess made 10 years ago by wealthy institutions. We tell our young people a somewhat gloomy story about the past and about the future. But into that downbeat narrative - not very different from the one that must have dominated in Palestine 2,000 years ago – burst a story that talks of healing and hope.
The family of John the Baptist and of Jesus had to come to terms with events outside their control and the birth of two unexpected children. John arrives talking about someone who will baptise with fire. Jesus is recognised as one who can free people from being trapped by their past. We see the symbolism of light shining in darkness, we hear news of great joy, and the child's name means 'God saves'.
For Christians who come to Church today but also throughout the year, Christmas is not just a cuddly message about a sweet baby. It is a message to every generation that there is a God who believes us to be capable of great things – and who joins us in our struggle. This Christmas, take time to look at the places where you need hope in your life – and invite the baby to help you believe that there is an eternal love which changes everything. Welcome that love into your heart, especially into the dark corners. Let the angels help you to sing from the bottom of your heart – Glory to God in the highest.
God's solidarity with us at Christmas is the antidote to the message that things can only get worse. Christmas is a time for those who are not ashamed to be dreamers. Among the disciples of Jesus there is no room for what Pope Francis calls 'sourpusses'.
Secondly, the way that Christmas is presented leaves some people feeling left out. They don't have the happy families or the impressive presents. But the baby of Bethlehem did not come to those with high social status or the perfect domestic arrangements. This child's arrival was a potential embarrassment and Herod wanted to get rid of it because it threatened to upset his plans – just as King Herod's son would later want rid of John the Baptist. The child and his family were fit only for a stable.
The Church has always spoken to the heart of the world when it is in solidarity with those on the fringes. A church that is too clean or that is seen as superior will never bring people to Bethlehem. The Christ child comes to those with little social status and it is they who recognise him. Christmas is a time for supporting those who feel on the fringes, not a time when people make them feel lesser or looked down on. At Christmas God reaches out away beyond heaven and becomes one of us. Christmas is a feast to push us all beyond our comfort zones – for the Christmas story tells us that is where God in Jesus is to be found.
Thirdly, the scriptures tell us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God does not just speak nice words to us. Jesus becomes Emmanuel, God with us. The Catholic tradition has maintained a strong sacramental approach to the presence of God among us. God comes not in theory but incarnate, taking on human flesh. He will later tell his disciples that they have to eat his flesh and drink his blood – and some will find that bard to take.
Our Church tradition is still strong in our teaching that God comes to us in bread and wine, in oil and water, in the laying on of hands and in the words of absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He took on a human body and continues to touch our human bodies which will be raised up on the Last Day. God seeks to redeem all of what we are. The incarnate God touches us in our hearts, our imagination and in our flesh.
That is where our understanding of good and bad comes from. We can sin in our bodies and not just in our heads for our bodies are Temples of the Holy Spirit. Christmas is not just a nice celebration – but a feast that looks forward to so much of what Jesus was later teach in his adult years.
Can I finish with words that Pope Francis spoke last week about this profound and challenging celebration of Jesus' birth?
Christmas reminds us that a faith that does not trouble us is a troubled faith.
A faith that does not make us grow is a faith that needs to grow.
A faith that does not raise questions is a faith that has to be questioned.
A faith that does not rouse us is a faith that needs to be roused.
A faith that does not shake us is a faith that needs to be shaken.
Indeed, a faith which is only intellectual or lukewarm is only a notion of faith.
It can become real
-once it touches our heart, our spirit and our whole being.
-once it allows God to born and reborn in the manger of our heart once we let the star of Bethlehem guide us to the place where the Son of God lies, not among Kings and riches, but among the poor and humbl,
-once we let the Star of Bethlehem guide us to the place where the Son of God lies, not among Kings and riches, but among the poor and humble.
Have a wonderfully enriching – and strangely uncomfortable – feast of Christmas!
+ Donal McKeown
St Eugene's Cathedral
Midnight Mass for Christmas 2017