“We give thanks for all our health care workers, indeed all frontline workers, especially, those on duty over the Christmas period. Included among the vulnerable are those who have fallen on hard times, due to the economic impact of Covid-19” – Bishop Hayes
I spent Christmas 1995 in Kenya visiting my brother John and his wife Marie who were at that time lay missionaries working with the Kiltegan Fathers in Kitui. It was going to be a very different Christmas away from home and due to the warmer African temperatures. We decided to spend Christmas in Lamu, an island off the coast of Kenya in the Indian Ocean. We were situated in Lamu Town which is, in the main, populated by those of the Islamic faith. We were surrounded by mosques with their distinctive call to prayer, five times a day, beginning in the early hours of the morning.
On Christmas Eve we sat together for a meal with a plan to attend Midnight Mass at the parish administered by the White Fathers in Lamu Town. However, when we arrived at the church for midnight, we realized that Midnight Mass had already been celebrated at 10pm! Therefore, as we arrived, the congregation was beginning to leave. As I knelt in the emptying church, feeling disappointed that we were not there for Midnight Mass, a young girl carrying an infant called out to me, “Do you want to see the child? Do you want to see the child?”
She, accompanied by some family members, brought a baby forward. The little boy was smiling and for a moment I did not know how to respond other than to smile in return. Then he stretched out his tiny hand and all I could do was put my finger gently into his hand. He held onto my finger with his ‘baby strength grip’, weak for me, yet strong enough for him. While we had missed Midnight Mass, I had encountered the mystery of Christmas; the vulnerability of the little baby taking hold of my finger so that I had to be gentle and allow myself to be vulnerable. Later, the following morning, we could truly celebrate Christmas Mass having grasped a deeper sense of the Incarnation arising from my encounter with the little baby boy and his family members.
This year the celebration of Christmas will be so different. It will be impossible for our usual large congregations to assemble for Mass on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days remains suspended during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure the safety of the community at large. We encourage people to participate in Mass via webcam or radio link at Christmas – which will be the only option after Christmas, in view of the latest guidelines. We give thanks for the efforts of our parish teams to ensure that our churches are safe places to gather for Mass at Christmas and for times of prayerful reflection in the days after Christmas.
These difficult times have meant that our lives have centred on home and so it is appropriate to celebrate at home – our ‘little churches’ – with rituals which can be accessed at www.kilmorediocese.ie and via the Northern Pastoral Network. These prayerful resources are especially designed for those gathering at home and, in particular, for those who feel unsafe in larger gatherings. The Covid-19 restrictions have actually afforded us greater opportunities to develop resources for our prayer and reflection.
In this time of uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic we hear the constant call to be aware of those who are more susceptible to Covid-19; those who are vulnerable. We think of those in nursing homes, the sick in hospitals or at home. We give thanks for all our health care workers, indeed all frontline workers, especially, those on duty over the Christmas period. Included among the vulnerable are those who have fallen on hard times, due to the economic impact of Covid-19. We give thanks for the efforts of our charities, which deserve our support to alleviate hunger, homelessness, loneliness, and mental health difficulties. In reaching out to those who are suffering, with our acts of kindness to a neighbour or a stranger, we are fulfilling our Christian calling.
Christmas 2020 highlights the vulnerability of humanity and the vulnerability of God; at Christmas we celebrate how God is placed in our hands as the little vulnerable Baby Jesus. We are being asked especially this Christmas to keep each other safe and to act in ways to ensure care for those most vulnerable. It means that we will have to make decisions about how we connect with family and friends this Christmas. The sacrifices we make now will ensure the health and indeed the lives of the most vulnerable among us.
We are conscious of those who are no longer with us this Christmas, those who have died, including those who suffered the effects of Covid-19 and their bereaved families and friends. May all our Faithful Departed rest in peace. May we have a safe Christmas by looking out for those who are vulnerable and keeping them at the centre of all our actions in these days and into the New Year. In keeping the most vulnerable at the centre of our lives this Christmas, we are keeping Christ at the centre of our lives into the future. Happy Christmas.
+ Martin, Bishop of Kilmore.
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