“The Christmas story is neither comfortable nor cosy … It is not enough to say the right things. It is our actions that make God real in our world today” – Bishop Farrell
Whilst it is a special time of year, the birth of Jesus is not a fairy-tale! Cards and carols may not dwell on it, but giving birth in someone’s barn is no woman’s dream. Only the most naïve would call it a fairy-tale beginning. And the story of this particular child has no fairy-tale ending: beaten, humiliated, nailed naked to a timber beam, and displayed to all and sundry. These tactics of terror were carried out by an empire accustomed to dealing with regional “inconveniences.” Scratch beneath the surface of the Christmas story and you will discover things that would never make their way onto a commercial Christmas card.
It is this world that the eternal Son of God, embraced. Like most of us He entered our world as a simple child in a small, unremarkable place – an outpost of the Roman Empire. God had, not only a mother, but also a grandmother, cousins, great-aunts, and some in His family tree were caught up in the perennial passions of sex and politics. In Christ Jesus, God has become like us in all things, but sin. We are reminded that He was part of a family that, like most, was somewhat dysfunctional, a mix of the good and bad, the saintly and the sinful, the glorious and the not so glorious. And what good news this is for us! It gives us encouragement and hope about our destiny and importance. God can bring the Christ to birth even in people like us.
The Christmas crib reminds us of the birth of the baby Jesus. But Christmas will be somewhat deceptive if it fails say – indeed say loudly – that Christ is no longer a child, that Bethlehem was a prelude to Calvary and Easter. The Christ of the first Christmas is no longer a child; He has grown up; He has risen from the dead. But His place is taken, the manger is filled, by other Christs.
What will I see when I kneel before the Christmas crib? It is no longer the romanticised Bethlehem’s Child that is enfolded in Mary’s arms. Is it an infant with a life-limiting condition who will never really grow up; is it a child trafficked and abused; a teenager trapped in the nightmare of direct provision accommodation for asylum seekers; a face of a tormented Christ abandoned in a refugee camp; a coloured Christ bloated from hunger, eyes empty of hope. Perhaps the crib is empty, because an unborn child was not allowed to reach it.
The Good News is that, because of God’s intervention, there is hope for all of them – and for us. The need continues for all believers to bring hope in the midst of despair for the hurt and bewildered. We have a need to find God and be found by our God in the realities and sufferings that make our human lives.
Might my explanation of the true meaning of Christmas disturb rather than console? Only if Christmas is a refuge from reality. The Christmas story is neither comfortable nor cosy. The birth of Jesus “does not provide us with a ladder by which to escape the ambiguities of life and scale the heights of heaven. Rather it enables us to burrow deep into the heart of planet Earth and find it shimmering with divinity” (Cardinal Avery Dulles).
But how do we link together this challenging mission with the meek and gentle Jesus, born a baby in Bethlehem? Or the angels on Christmas morning who announced Jesus as the prince of peace? When the Word of God took on our human condition, it was for the good of a universal human community, not just for those who are culturally and economically privileged.
Christmas calls for conversion, a fresh turning to God not simply from the age-old list of sins that stamp us as children of Eve and Adam, but from the blindness and lack awareness that keep us from seeing the image of God in each person as a refugee, in the helpless stranger in our midst, as well as neighbours and the people who share our homes. The God who takes flesh in Jesus comes to “save his people from their sins” (see Matt 1:21). Concretely put: salvation is more than knowledge and more than forgiveness and compassion, as magnificent as these great gifts are. To be saved is to live like God and love like God. It is not enough to say the right things. It is our actions that make God real in our world today: and we do this in particular today, when we bring the light of Christ into the dark places of homelessness and poverty, racism, intolerance, discrimination and violence which are unacceptable and an affront to the Gospel.
May we be Emmanuel, God-with-us, in the values we hold, the generosity we exhibit by opening our lives, our hearts, our communities and our economies to strangers fleeing poverty, persecution and war. Our world, our society, our local place needs an ongoing engagement- an engagement beyond the comfortable associations of our language, culture and social class. As Jesus reminded His disciples in vivid language: we must go beyond loyalties to family and friends. In our times, if we only think of family and local community loyalties, we are back in the world of fear and suspicion, fear of the other, fear of the stranger.
Our lives are a landscape in which God is seen and whose love unlocks ours and casts out all fear. May the coming Prince of Light drive away all darkness this Christmas, may He melt the hardness of hearts, and fill our lives with his hope
· Bishop Dermot Farrell is Bishop of Ossory
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long +353 (0) 86 172 7678