- “Every member of the human race, young or old, man or woman, with or without disability, born or unborn, of whatever race, creed or sexual orientation is by virtue of his or her humanity and child of God, through the birth of Jesus Christ”
I wonder if you can remember what you were doing, or where you were on the 3rd of April. That was the evening on which we were asked to complete the Census. I remember it well because I was isolating with COVID. The census form had to be left in the porch for a “socially distant” collection. This year, among the people who were listed on the census for the first time, were thousands of people from Ukraine, who were beginning to arrive in Ireland seeking refuge. Their presence here with us, even for a short time, will be forever part of our social history. There will also be gaps in the census, of course, because family members, friends and neighbours who emigrated or died before 3rd April, will not be listed. As we gather here around the table of the Eucharist, we can make sure that they are not forgotten.
The Gospel tells us that, when Quirinius was governor of Syria, the emperor, Caesar Augustus, gave orders that a census of the whole world was to be taken. Caesar Augustus was the nephew and successor of Julius Caesar. It was Augustus who completed the work that Julius began and turned Rome into an Empire. The records show that he was a great soldier, who was also gifted in the art of government. The sixteenth century English writer, Francis Bacon said “knowledge is power”.
Augustus was an ambitious man, ambitious for himself and ambitious for the empire. Ambition often leads to what the prophet Isaiah describes in the first reading “the footgear of battle”, “the cloak rolled in blood”, “the rod of the oppressor”. To ambitious people those things would seem normal, as long as they themselves are negatively affected.
Augustus would have seen the census as a means to power; a way of controlling all the nations around the Mediterranean, from the tip of Spain right around to the tip of Morocco. It would be fascinating to know where the records of that census were kept and if, somewhere in a Roman archive, there might still exist a scroll listing the name of Jesus, Son of Joseph and Son of Mary who was born in Bethlehem.
At the time of his death, the Senate of Rome, proclaimed Augustus to be a son of the gods. Little did they know or care that, in an obscure village called Nazareth, at the far end of the Empire, there was this ten year old Child, living a simple life, learning from Joseph and Mary, who actually was and is the Son of God.
If you wanted to draw attention to yourself and to be recognised as the “Messiah”, you probably wouldn’t start out in a stable in Bethlehem. You probably wouldn’t come from Nazareth either, by all accounts. In his Gospel, Saint John records an encounter between two of the disciples of Jesus. Philip invites Nathanael to come and meet Jesus of Nazareth. “Nazareth” says Nathanael, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” A first year media student would have told the Holy Spirit that the place to start was somewhere like Jerusalem, or maybe even Rome. But God’s ways are not our ways.
Jesus was not ambitious. He didn’t need to be. When I was a student, not long after the Second Vatican Council, there was a huge renewal of interest in Biblical Studies. One of the questions people began to ask was whether Jesus knew everything even as a child, and if he fully realised who He was. Part of the mystery of the Incarnation is that Jesus took on our human nature, with all its limitations; “the Word became flesh and lived among us”. In the fourth Eucharistic Prayer, we are reminded the Jesus was “like us in all things but sin”. The Gospels tell us, however, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus lived in perfect communion with God the Father. What people saw in Jesus, and what attracted them, was His perfect communion with the Father, and the perfect humanity that flowed from that relationship. It doesn’t really matter whether Jesus could do calculus, or speak many foreign languages. He knew the one thing He needed to know. He knew God and He knew him intimately, and He knew that He was loved. That was the source of His power, which He placed at the service of humanity.
A true disciple is someone who, like Jesus, seeks to live in communion with God. In our second reading, Saint Paul tells us that this involves: “giving up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions”. Like everybody else, of course, Christians have hopes and plans for the future, for a job and a home and a family and many other things. I think what Saint Paul means is that a true disciple will always want to ensure that those plans and hopes are, in some real way, connected with God’s plan for us.
Salvation cannot be bought or earned. It is a gift from God, who invites us into Communion with Him; who wants us to share in the loving relationship that He has with Jesus. That is the whole meaning of Christmas, not just that the Son of God was born on earth, like an extra-terrestrial, but that He took on our humanity and in that way made us all children of God.
As with every family, there is just one condition of membership; we don’t get to choose our brothers and sisters. We accept as brothers and sisters all those whom God acknowledges as His sons and daughters. Nobody is excluded from the love of God and nobody is disposable. Every member of the human race, young or old, man or woman, with or without disability, born or unborn, of whatever race, creed or sexual orientation is by virtue of his or her humanity and child of God, through the birth of Jesus Christ.
- Bishop Kevin Doran is Bishop of Elphin. This Mass will be celebrated at midnight tonight in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Sligo.