“I am humbled by … the courageous work of Trócaire to help traumatised victims and survivors of conflict … to the brave Irish UN peacekeepers and for the tremendous humanitarian work of our navy in the Mediterranean. I thank God for the work of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, the Father Peter McVerry Trust, the Simon Community and the Missionary Sisters of Charity who reach out to the marginalised … I encourage you during 2017 to consider offering some of your time and gifts to help a charitable outreach or voluntary organisation. Become ‘angels of mercy’ yourselves.” – Archbishop Martin
Back in September I had the privilege of leading 170 pilgrims from Ireland on a journey of Christian solidarity to the Holy Land. One of the highlights of our pilgrimage was to spend time with the Christian community in Bethlehem and to meet with the Mayor of Bethlehem not far from Manger Square.
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built over the spot where Christ was born, is currently undergoing a huge restoration project. The interior was filled with scaffolding. Just a few months before our visit the conservationists had discovered, underneath the plastered walls, an ancient mosaic of an angel which had been covered up and forgotten for centuries. Our guide told us that the hidden angel’s outstretched hand points to the very place where Mary gave birth to Jesus.
In the Gospel stories about Christmas, the angels bring a message which is, firstly, a message of joy and hope for the world; and, secondly, it is a call to God’s people not to be afraid.
‘Do not be afraid’, the angel Gabriel says to Mary when he tells her that she is to come the mother of God’s son.
‘Do not be afraid’, Gabriel also tells Zechariah as he hears that his wife Elizabeth will give birth to John the Baptist.
‘Do not be afraid’, an angel tells the shepherds on the first Christmas night, directing them to the town of David where they will find a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in manger.
‘Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife’, an angel tells Joseph in a dream; ‘because she has conceived what is in her, by the Holy Spirit’.
The angels are God’s messengers and the message they bring is Good News for the World; it is a message of joy, of goodwill; it is a cause for rejoicing, a joy to be shared.
‘I bring you news of great joy’, the angel tells the shepherds. ‘Today in the town of David, a Saviour has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord. And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of goodwill’.
The angels’ joyful message is infectious. Luke tells us the shepherds came away from the Nativity scene ‘glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen’.
As we gather at Christmas to share the joy of our Saviour’s birth, we too are entrusted with Good News for the world. The final words of Mass commission us to go out from here in peace, glorifying and praising God by our lives. They encourage us to be, like the angels, messengers of consolation, comfort and compassion to our broken and troubled world. The Good News of Christianity is not to hidden or kept to ourselves. It is for sharing, announcing and living.
The world yearns for a message of hope, peace and consolation. Anyone following the news media in recent days cannot fail to be moved by the sight of fellow human beings fleeing for their lives – from Aleppo to Berlin, from Turkey to Egypt. Nearer home the plight of people forced to live and sleep on the streets makes us thankful to have a warm home, food on the table and a bed to rest in at night.
If Christmas is to be more than sentimentality, tinsel and lights, then our Christmas worship should challenge us to go out and play our part in making the world a better place. It is our task as followers of the ‘Christ-child’, born the ‘Prince of Peace’, to carry his message of hope to the world. Isaiah the prophet expresses so beautifully the reason for our hope: ‘The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light. On those who live in the land of the shadow of death a light has shone. You have made their gladness greater, you have made their joy increase’.
Our mission, then, is to bring the light of Christ into the shadows and darkness of the world, to overcome evil by our witness to love and to help restore hope and peace to our families, communities and world.
Thankfully, we have many examples of Irish people who are such messengers of hope. I am heartened by the courageous work of Trócaire as it engages with its partners in Syria and Iraq to help traumatised victims and survivors of conflict. I send good wishes this Christmas to the brave Irish UN peacekeepers in Lebanon and other troubled places, and I salute the tremendous humanitarian work of our navy which has helped to rescue thousands of migrants from the Mediterranean. I thank God for the outreach of members of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, the Father Peter McVerry Trust, the Simon Community and many others who go out of their way to raise awareness and directly support people who have nowhere to call home. Here in Armagh I admire greatly the work of the Missionary Sisters of Charity who gently reach out to the marginalised from their convent and hostel not far from our Cathedral gates.
The people of Ireland continue to be extremely generous to charitable agencies. As well as those who offer financial help, I am humbled by the many people in our communities who give their time and talents voluntarily to the wonderful work of mercy. In recent days I have met people who prepare food parcels, volunteer at soup kitchens, visit elderly or lonely neighbours, write Christmas messages of encouragement to those who feel isolated or unloved. I encourage you during 2017 to consider offering some of your time and gifts to help a charitable outreach or voluntary organisation. Become ‘angels of mercy’ yourselves. Angels are not meant to be covered or hidden like that ancient Bethlehem angel in the Church of the Nativity.
Today a Saviour has been born for us! That Good News is intended to be shared, given away, multiplied and spread so that people everywhere can walk in the light of Christ, and the darkness of evil can be overcome everywhere.
Happy Christmas and God bless you all. Amen.
Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland
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