St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, 24 December 2016
Saint Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus begins with a clear affirmation. Luke boldly places the story of the birth of Jesus into terms of the real world. He identifies who the Roman Emperor was and who the local governor was and the fact that a world census was to take place, all historical facts which can be verified as being real.
The birth of Jesus is situated then not in the realm of myth or fantasy but within the reality of the world of time. Indeed, Jesus’ birth belongs not only to the realities of that particular time, but his birth is the birth of someone who comes to change the realities of history. He is a saviour. He is Emmanuel: God with us. He is a light to all those who live in darkness and in a land of deep shadow, to use the language of the Prophet Isiah which we heard in the first reading. Again Isaiah tells us that: “He is a prince of Peace whose dominion is a peace without end”.
Emmanuel, God with us! How is that reflected in the world in which we live? For many in Ireland today God has become often only marginal to their lives. They are not necessarily atheists, much less hostile to belief. But God plays less and less a role in their everyday life, except at special moments of trial or grief. They are good people, often better people than many of those who profess to believe. Does God then matter? Do we need God?
Emmanuel, God with us, the Prince of Peace! How do we explain that to a world which is war- torn, to a world where the perennial desire of humankind for peace is being martyred daily: where that fundamental modern ambition expressed in the very first line of the Charter of the United Nations: “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” is daily being rendered a cynical empty dream? Where is our God?
And to come nearer home, what does “God with us” mean to those sick individuals who murder openly on our streets or to those evil individuals who instruct and pay them? Does the birth of Christ mean anything to them? Is there any way, then, in which those who are victims of domestic violence or of sexual violence, of road violence or the violence of economic exploitation can experience at Christmas the joy of the birth of a saviour? Our city is marked by homelessness but also indeed for many by hopelessness. We have very high suicide rates and so many are searching for real hope in the face of an economic crisis, in the face of loneliness and emptiness and the illusion of drugs or empty consumerism?
Yes, Christmas brings joy and brings out real goodness even in the hardest of hearts and indeed that is part of the perennial message of Christmas which touches hearts like no other feast. But as believers we cannot be satisfied simply to celebrate Christmas like an anaesthetic which hides pain for a moment or like an eruption of spending which ends up leaving us only with a hangover of emptiness.
Emmanuel, God with us! Saint Paul writes that since God’s grace has been revealed he has made salvation possible and that we must give up everything that does not lead to God while we are waiting in hope for the blessing that is to come.
Is hope possible? Where do we ground our hope? Can we find hope on our own? Do we really need a saviour? Many, as Pope Benedict stressed in his Encyclical on hope Spe Salvi, do not find hope from faith but, as he says,
“from the newly discovered link between science and praxis. It is not that faith is simply denied; rather it is displaced onto another level—that of purely private and other-worldly affairs—and at the same time it becomes somehow irrelevant for the world”.
As Christians who celebrate the birth of a saviour we have to seek out what our hope really means and involves and what it is that Christian hope has to offer to our world.
We have to ask what “progress” really means; what does it promise and what does it not promise? Certainly science and progress, thank God, offer enormous new possibilities for good: just think of progress in medicine and in communications. But they also open up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist: just think of the development of weapons of mass destruction. We also have to reflect on what happens when true progress, in the wrong hands, becomes progress in evil. We have to ask why it is that progress for good is not shared and that today inequalities flourish. All of us were stunned even here in our own city to find thousands of people queuing for basic food at the Capuchin and other food centres, while within a few kilometres others were queuing for luxury goods. Technical progress must be matched by progress in true humanism. True progress is progress for all.
Let me quote Pope Benedict once again; “It is not science that redeems man: man is redeemed by love”. Hope then must be based in love. Hope can never be grounded only in self-interest, even enlightened self-interest. Hope requires that we go beyond ourselves and our own interests. Narcissistic self-love only leads to frustration. We find hope in loving and in being loved. Self-less loving is what brings humanity to its fulfilment. The hopelessness which afflicts many in our world comes from men and women being trapped in self, but also from a vision of society and economy and even of life itself which is narrowly focussed on self-realization.
The birth of the saviour takes our reflection even farther. The birth of Jesus is an event which introduces us to a God who is revealed in Jesus Christ as a God of love. Infinite power which is the attribute of God is revealed in unconditional love. Encountering a saviour means encountering the absolute love of God in our lives. Only an encounter with God’s unconditional love can redeem us from becoming trapped in compromise or sinful selfishness.
Yet so many people do not know where to turn to encounter this God whose unconditional love of us can redeem us in our weakness and inadequacy. The problem is that we look for God in the wrong places and indeed you might say that often we have been taught to seek God in the wrong places.
Where then do we find God? The mystery of Christ’s birth leads us towards the right answer. The Shepherds are led towards the new born king and then they are given a sign. It is not the sign of luxury or the symbols of power. No they are given a sign that they will find the new-born king in a small baby living without not just the external signs of power: he is born with only the simplest necessities in total contradiction of what we are led to consider power and indeed of how we often consider God and being like God.
The birth of Jesus in powerlessness and poverty teaches us that we seek hope somewhere else than in a constant seeking for power. Rather we should be seeking, to quote again those words of the Prophet Isaiah, “to bring light to all those who live in darkness and in a land of deep shadow”. Who knows how many there are not far for us who languish in the land of deep shadow which our world and our culture may ignore and may even have helped to create.
This day is born to us a saviour. Let us rejoice in this night and through the way we live reflect the love and the hope that Christ’s coming in poverty and simplicity opens. May we bring hope and joy especially to those in the real world around us and close to us who still “languish in the land of deep shadow”.
- Archbishop Diarmud Martin will celebrate Mass of Christmas Night in the Pro Cathedral at 10pm this evening.