24 December 2010
Homily of Archbishop Dermot Clifford, Archbishop of Cashel & Emly, for Midnight Mass Christmas 2010, Cathedral of the Assumption, Thurles, Co Tipperary – Embargoed
A letter writer to one of our daily newspapers on Wednesday of this week wrote “I am dreaming of a mild Christmas just like the ones I to know”. The white Christmas of which Bing Crosby dreamed can be a nightmare in reality. Last Christmas, with its snow and black ice, left many worshippers with cuts, bruises and broken bones even. This Christmas is following the same pattern so far, although our part of the country has not been faring too badly. And, we have enjoyed mild weather at Christmas for many years before 2009 AD.
However the storm at Christmas in 1997 led to a memorable experience of good neighbourliness – or muintereas – and greater family participation. The electricity was off but people who had gas or oil cookers invited the neighbours to bring their turkeys over. There was no television and no way to charge mobile phones so children and their parents played games in the candlelight. It was a new experience for the young but it recalled older times, much poorer times, when Christmas celebrations were much more simple but still very enjoyable for all that. It is on such simple celebrations that the pre-nineteen sixties generations developed their happy associations of Christmas.
Anyhow, the point is that the weather tonight will not dampen our joy nor will the recession and other problems take from the good news which the angels announced to the shepherds near Bethlehem on the first Christmas night. St Luke writes: “The angel said, ‘Do not be afraid, I bring you tidings of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David, a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. And here is a sign for you, you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.'”
The good news was that the long awaited Saviour, promised by the prophets down the centuries was now in the world. Just as astonishing, this Saviour was the Son of God, the second person of the Blessed Trinity “God from God, light from light, true God from true God … of one being with the Father”. He had been born of Mary and wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in an animals’ feeding trough for a bed! “The word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us” St John puts it. Literally “he pitched his tent amongst us”.
The extraordinary humility of the Son of God was described by St Paul (Phil 5 – 7):”Who being in the form of God did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are”. In the words of the thanksgiving hymn ‘Te Deum’: “You, Christ, the King of glory, Son of the eternal Father, When you took our nature to save mankind You did not shrink from the Virgin’s womb”
No lot could be more humble or more ordinary that the Son of God chose from Himself. And who were the first to be chosen to hear of the Lord’s birth? Poor shepherds who were out in the darkness minding their flocks. The shepherds were what we would call a marginalised group. Their clothes were rough, their personal hygiene left a lot to be desired. They were suspected of stealing and trespassing.
Cardinal Newman, now Blessed John Henry Newman, posed this question in a Christmas sermon “Why would the heavenly hosts appear to these shepherds? What was it in them that attracted the angels and the Lord of the angels? There was no reason to suppose that they were better than the common run of man in their circumstances..? Why then were they chosen? For their poverty sake and for their obscurity.”
He went on “The Almighty God looks with a special love or as we might term it, affection upon the lowly. Perhaps, it is that man, a fallen dependent and destitute creature is more in this proper place when he is in lowly circumstances and the power and riches, though unavoidable in the case of some, are unnatural appendages to man as such.” For example, helicopters are frowned upon in the present climate while the reindeer have come back into their own in these snowy days!
The shepherds hurried to see the ‘happening’ which the angels had announced to them. They were given the warmest of welcomes on the coldest of nights from Mary and Joseph who listened to their story with great interest. They walked tall as they returned to their flocks. Or, as St Luke puts it, “And the shepherds went back praising God for all they had heard and seen.”
Our faith tells us that the baby in the Manger in Bethlehem is both true God and true man. He is God for us and man with us. This is the mystery of the Incarnation. Jesus has two natures, divine and human, united in the one Person. Blessed John Henry Newman wrote on this mystery: “Before he (Our Lord) came on earth, he had but the perfections of God, but afterwards he had also the virtues of a creature, such as faith, meekness, self denial. Before he came on earth he could not be tempted to evil; but afterwards he had a man’s heart, and a man’s wants and infirmities. His Divine Nature indeed pervaded his manhood, so that every deed and word of his in the flesh savoured of eternity and infinity; but on the other hand, from the time he was born of the Virgin Mary, he had a natural fear of danger, a natural shrinking from pain, though ever subject to the ruling influence of that holy and eternal Essence which was in him.” (Blessed John Henry Newman,
Parochial and Plain Sermons, volume III, page 166).
The two emotions we should feel tonight as we contemplate St Luke’s account, or the Crib at the back of the Altar, are humility and joy. The example of the angels’ song “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace to people who enjoy his favour”. The example of the shepherds “they went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” Thirdly there is the example of Mary “She treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” She is our model of prayer, especially silent prayer … the silence in the Nativity scene is striking. Try and make some space for silent prayer, on your own, during Christmas.
Alice Taylor has a lovely piece on this in her book ‘A Christmas Miscellany’: “The best part of Christmas night is the part that we spend on our own with the time to go out for even a short walk, to look up at the stars and know that those same stars shone down on Bethlehem on that first Christmas night. Because the first Christmas took place out in the country under the night sky, I need to give myself time to wind down and feel the essence of Christmas which is out in the stillness of the night. This spirit is hidden deep in the heart of each one of us and may only emerge in silence. Even on your own at Christmas you may feel less alone than somebody surrounded by people. Each Christmas when we light our candle it is nice to remember that previous generations of our Irish ancestors have done this and that we are the custodians of our spiritual traditions and that we owe it to our descendants to pass on the real Christmas gifts that our parents entrusted to us.”
When our grandparents were much poorer than we are, they celebrated Christmas in a simple manner, decorating their houses with holly and ivy. They had the Christmas candle in one window and the Crib on the other. Sigerson Clifford described their open hearts and their open hearths in this poem ‘A Kerry Christmas Carol’:
Brush this floor and clean this hearth,
And set the fire to keep,
For they might visit us tonight,
When all the world’s asleep.
Don’t blow the tall white candle out
But leave it burning bright,
So that they’ll know they’re welcome here
This holy Christmas night.
Leave the door upon the latch,
And set the fire to keep,
And pray they’ll rest with us tonight
When all the world’s asleep.
I shall end by extending Blessed John Henry Newman’s Christmas Blessing to you and to all: “May each Christmas, as it comes, find us more and more like him who at this time became a little child, for our sake; more simple-minded, more humble, more affectionate, more resigned, more happy, more full of God.”