Christmas: Celebrating God in Mystery
Christmas comes but once a year! The Advent wreath, the Christmas carols, the star on the Christmas tree, midnight Mass and the Christian liturgies of Christmas Day speak of the mystery of God’s birth in the human being, Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary. God gasping for the first breath, God in the arms of a young mother, God in Christ growing through childhood and adolescence to manhood: God became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1.14). We barely stop to wonder at, to engage with the mystery of it all!
The four gospels recall the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary. Each gospel enables the reader and listener to tap in to the original experience of encounters with Jesus. These encounters with Jesus puzzled many. For Christ questioned ways of doing and seeing. He challenged prejudice. He awakened religious faith in Himself as the Son of God, while at the same time opening those who listened to Him to the mystery of God.
Meeting Jesus of Nazareth was an experience! It discomforted some. It gave a new and powerful hope to many. Meeting Christ through the Scriptures and through the living tradition of Christian witness by ordinary women and men in every generation is the life blood of Christian faith and mission.
The Christmas event, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, draws us into the heart of the Christian experience of God: the mystery of the historical fact of God’s incarnation as a human being, the mystery of God’s entry into the human condition as a person.
Christmas: Celebrating Mutual Respect, Freedom and the Resurgence of Christian Hope
With this birth God assumes human personhood, linking divine mystery with the mystery of individual personhood, which we all know, and because of which, as we grow and gain experience, we learn to respect the freedom of the other person. The choice to believe in Christ as Son of God, to choose the Christian way, is a radical and personal exercise of that same freedom. The manger of Bethlehem calls one to marvel, as life and creation often does, beyond logic! Tracing the impact of the Christ-child, grown to man, leads one’s mind, consciousness and heart to vistas of new insight and hope which sustain one in deepest suffering. For in Christ, born of Mary, God has been there in darkest suffering and annihilation, and from that dark place He has risen and opened the way of Hope to new life with God.
With the Christmas liturgies and Church services, the living and risen Christ invites all without exception to hear the call of salvation, so that through hearing it we may believe, through believing we may hope, and through hope we may come to love. The world of our time stands in existential need of that divine love. The choice to exercise Christian charity in personal action and through institutional channels of Church, of the political and the societal orders, is the flow-chart of that same divine love.
Christmas: A sight line of Hope for life and living in every age
We all realise that the human family is confronted with massive challenges in our world: in national economies, in political governance, in respect for the inviolable dignity of human life, in care of creation, in care for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, in care for the poor and hungry, in care for the homeless, in responding to threats to security and privacy, in education to a humanism for the dawning age of the techno-sciences in the information society in a civilisation of increasing acceleration. These and other issues of our time send out a siren-call to Christians to unveil afresh the pertinence for the human family of the Christian perspective on life, on relationship to God, to creation and to the neighbour. Such in part is the call of our times, a time when many voices, in and out of tune, call for renewal in personal, religious and public life.
Such transformative moments recur in history. The Christian Church, at once a pale and nonetheless real anticipation of life in and with God, is by definition called permanently by Christ to renewal, conversion and reform. The moments and eras of such renewal in its history are numerous. St Malachy’s twelfth century reform was one such moment, so too the Reformation, the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation.
An earlier era of such renewal and re-conversion was set in train by the Irish monks who re-evangelised parts of Europe after the Fall of the Roman Empire. One of these was St Columbanus who set out from the monastery of St Comghall in Bangor, Co. Down. His major monastic foundations at Luxeuil in France and at Bobbio in Italy were, in today’s language, centres of excellence. In the monastic, religious as well as in several arenas of human and cultural endeavour, their achievements and traditions still transmit the ennobling and civilising power of Christian faith and lifestyle. St Columbanus died 1400 year ago in the year 615. His life-story and achievements, inspired by his personal engagement with the Good News of the gospel, still causes one to marvel and look afresh at our Christian heritage rooted, as it is, in the momentously historical event of the birth of the Christ child of Nazareth. Together with fellow Christians in France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy, and many throughout the world who have discovered the significance of Columbanus, we in this diocese shall celebrate the memory and tradition of St Columbanus in the year ahead.
In celebrating his life’s work of evangelisation, his monastic foundations and his writings, so many of which have survived, we shall encounter his words: Christi simus, non nostri – we belong to Christ, not to ourselves. What does that mean, one might ask? A question apt for the Christmas season, I suggest,…for believer, indeed also for the agnostic and for all who seek meaning in life!
The manger and the empty tomb are icons of a response. Let us dwell on them in thought and in prayer, alone, with our families, with our children … and let us exult and rejoice, for today a Saviour has been born to us, Christ the Lord.
+Noel Treanor is Bishop of Down and Connor