Most of us are fortunate enough to have happy memories of our childhood and of youthful Christmases. We remember the warm, secure sense of being at home in loving family, or the thrill of opening a present to find that it was exactly what we had hoped for. When we look back, however, we realise that the presents have long been lost and some of the people who were at the centre of that happy circle have died or are far away, whether because of distance or discord Christmas brings a mixture of joy and sadness when we rejoice in remembered happiness but mourn the impermanence of everything that we cherish in our lives.
Nothing in the world lasts forever, nor, when we reflect, would we wish it to. We would love to recapture past joys, but we certainly would not want to remain seven years old forever. After all, the most burning ambition of a seven year old is to be grown up! That longing for joy while not being able to imagine its fulfilment is at the heart of all our restlessness.
When he wrote about eternal life in his recent encyclical on Christian hope, Pope Benedict suggested that people can be frightened by the thought of endless life as something interminable and boring. He described it rather as a moment of overwhelming joy, beyond any sense of time or duration: “Eternity is not an endless succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality… It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time – the before and after – no longer exist” (par 12).
Because of the birth of Christ there is now in our world, and in us, a life in which joy is permanent, in which relationships are no longer fragile, in which hope is finally fulfilled. Christmas is a time for renewing our hope and for believing, as Mary did, that the promises made to us by the Lord will be fulfilled (Luke 1:45).
Hope is not just an individual matter. A great French philosopher said that true hope is summed up in the words: “I hope in Thee for us” . Jesus was born as a member of our human family, for the sake of the whole family. Eternal life is the transformation of all that is good in human life, in our relationships and our efforts, into a new creation. The divisions caused by sin, by death, by the imperfection of all human achievements will be overcome.
Christmas is a time of hope but hope is not a passive waiting. The Child of Bethlehem will come again to gather the family into the loving presence of his Father. When he does so, he will challenge us as to whether we have recognised and served him in the least of his brothers and sisters. We can easily forget those who live with pain and fear and sadness and deprivation in our own communities. Archbishop Rowan Williams posed the challenge:
“…we might think too of those who die alone and unloved in our own society — the aged with no family (or forgotten by their family), the homeless addict, the mentally disturbed isolated from ordinary human contact… (We should) be glad that they are not forgotten by God, that their dignity is held and affirmed by God and that their lives are in his hand… God’s justice rebukes our forgetfulness; and the truth that he will never let go of the lost and needy, so far from being an alibi for us not to bother, is a reminder of the responsibility of service and reverence laid upon all of us .
The coming year will see the great efforts to regenerate areas of Limerick in which individuals and families have suffered enormously from bad planning and ongoing neglect, from crime and intimidation. The process of regeneration, or rebirth, will challenge all of us about how seriously we understand the meaning of the birth we are celebrating. It will demand of us real support and involvement and prayer for the rebirth of hope in those areas. We wish all of you a happy Christmas.
Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe
Bishop of Limerick