Homily of Archbishop Dermot Farrell for Christmas 2021

24 Dec 2021

Homily notes of Archbishop Dermot Farrell, St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Christmas Eve, 24 December 2021

Our lives rarely, if ever turn out as we expect.  Every human life is a profound gift that is beyond our horizon.   We dream of a job we would like to get, or a home we would like to own, or place we where would like to live.  But there are always surprises on the journey of life.  Frequently, if not always, the reality can be very different from what we imagined.

And this is also the way with and for our children.   We have dreams of how our child will be, and we have dreams for our children.  But is not the child we receive always a surprise?   Anyone who is a parent knows this a thousand times better than I do!   Such is the mystery of life.  Every child’s life has an horizon that is autonomous.   Likewise, with marriage; it is different from what we had hoped for or dreamt.  Life, marriage and children all carry surprises.  Elements of surprise run through all our stories.

In our lives, in our marriages, with our children we are called to engage with reality.   This is how God gives us to ourselves and God gives God’s very self to us—what we call grace, the blessedness of God himself.   It is to be found in the most unlikely places, in a hospital ward, in homeless shelter or a family home.  We stumble across God when we least expect it, and where we least expect Him; when we are alert to this, a new world appears within and around us, what previously appeared impossible becomes an everyday experience.

Reality can be very different–much better or worse than we thought it would be.  It can far surpass the dream or indeed disappoint.  Not every surprise is a good one.  We also have to cope with darkness and sickness and death.   In this perspective, faith—living faith—can be understood as how we respond to reality.

From the Scriptures it is abundantly clear that there were surprises in the lives of Joseph and Mary and Jesus.  Mary could not have imagined that on the first Christmas “amid the cold of winter, when half-spent was the night” a Saviour would be born—a lord of tenderness and mercy, a prince of true and everlasting peace.  The birth that night wasn’t a world-shattering event, but that birth changed the world.  It was “enough to change the light” — to use a phrase from County Cork poet, Bernard O’Donoghue (‘Christmas’ in his Selected Poems, Faber and Faber, 2008).   In the birth of Christ, God brings a new light to shine of the face of the earth.

Mary and Joseph knew Jesus was special, but they could never have imagined, however, that in his name the Church would be brought to birth.  The child born in Bethlehem, the Son given to us—from his very conception up to and including the Cross and Resurrection—is the very definition of surprise: born in a stable, giving his life on a cross, Rome’s instrument of terror, raised from the dead on Easter morning, to be the sacrament of salvation.  The story of Jesus is the story of the God of surprises.  As with our own children, all these surprises demanded trust and acceptance. Surprise is the order of the day when God is among us.

These surprises are a reflection of the greatest surprise of all.   For centuries the Jewish people dreamed of a Messiah and imagined what he would be like in various ways.  God’s chosen people had thought that the Messiah would emerge from the heavens in splendour, not in a stable among the straw and animals. The tradition had said that God would make his home in the great temple of Jerusalem, not in the womb of a surprised—even shocked—young woman. Yet our God—this God who took the name of Jesus—is a God of surprises.  “Faithful and constant, God is [full of surprise], … his love is endlessly inventive and he is calling [those whom he loves] to a union beyond the horizons of human hope” (Maria Boulding, Coming of God, 125).  Faith, hope and love beat for us in the heart of Jesus.

In the arrival of Jesus two worlds are brought into confrontation with each other, right from the moment of his birth.  The world of Caesar Augustus—a man-made world with all the pomp and trappings of power, it’s on show, callously indifferent to those who are fragile and vulnerable.   In Jesus and among those brought into the mystery of his mission, is the kingdom of God, another order, God’s way of doing things.  God’s world does not conform to the criteria of the empire.  Instead, the Kingdom of God works on hiddenness, gentleness, and meekness.  As Saint Paul pointed out to the Corinthians, “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor 1:25).  Who would have thought this is the way to salvation?   Who would have believed God uses our weakness, even more than our strengths, to fulfil God’s dream for us?

The reality of Jesus was a big surprise.  He was in fact God in the flesh, the divine in human, the Son of God made man.  His birth was not a time of fanfare; there was no wild exuberance.  It was so ordinary—God himself was present in the dreariness and poverty of a hillside cave.   From that moment the world was different because God came and continues to come, continues to make himself present in the hearts of women and men.  

And what is the surprise and what is this new world?  It is simply this—that from Christmas night God is always present in the midst of our world.  No matter what our burden, no matter what illness, anxiety, worry or trouble we have one hope to cling to—that God is with us. There is no situation in which he is absent.

Today, allow yourself to be surprised by God. As you contemplate the manger in which the Christ child lay, may you realise that your own journey towards God is full of surprises. We continue to act non-violently in his name, demanding an end to exclusion, violence and injustice.   In the face of the current Covid-19 crisis, the Church still called by God, continues to reach out to people who are isolated and paralysed by fear, people who are hospitalised, the bereaved, and those who cannot feed their family because they lost their job. In his humility, God is near; our God is close, and God calls us to be close to our suffering sisters and brothers.

I wish that for you and your family this Christmas may be blessed and joyful. May you have a happy Christmas—in the truest sense: happy because you experience deep within yourself, in your heart—as we say in the language of faith—the presence of Jesus who has remained with us, and remained faithful to us since the first Christmas night. As you look at the Christ child in the manger may you once more be surprised with the realisation that in the midst of the ordinariness of life—in the straw and darkness, you are not alone.  Christ the Saviour is born!  Christ our Saviour is with us!


  • Archbishop Dermot Farrell is Archbishop of Dublin