This is the text of Bishop Paul’s Christmas homily, preached in the Cathedral of The Annunciation and St Nathy, Ballaghaderreen.
Christmas is such a special time for us all! Behind the busyness and the hustle and bustle, it often centres around the people in our lives. Central to all this is our family. Many of us will have memories of Christmases past. My own memories as a child are of early morning Mass on Christmas morning, the excitement of Santa Claus, the turkey in the oven, the table set, the Christmas Tree, the plum pudding, the familiar films on the television like “Willie Wonka and his Chocolate Factory” and “The Sound of Music.” But mainly it was about the fun of being together. We will all have our own memories, some happy, some perhaps sad.
In mentioning family, we know that family comes in many different forms today. We have the traditional family of parents and children, we have single parent families, families who have been bereaved, those who have experienced the pain of breakup, and families awaiting the excitement of the arrival of a new baby in the New Year. Central to our celebration is of course the Holy Family. As we reflect upon this family, I am conscious that they had to flee into Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. They know what it is to be away from home in a strange land. Today our country has many people who are far from home. Christmas reminds us of our responsibilities to them and how important it is to make them feel welcome.
Another aspect to the Christmas story are those present but perhaps we don’t focus too much upon them. One such group is the shepherds. We are familiar with them and it more or less ends there. I might suggest that perhaps they are the ones we could identify most with this year of all years. There is a sense that they are huddled together in the dark, somewhat isolated on a hillside. They take one hour at a time, not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Not an easy place to be. They are the ones who first receive the wonderful message of Christ’s birth, they need it, they are ready for it. As people on the margins, they are open to this news, open to a new message, open to new possibilities…
What a powerful image that is for us this Christmas. The last year has been a struggle. The shepherds huddled together, we are not allowed to do this, however, as we’ve been told so many times; we’re together by keeping apart. They are in the dark. We have been there too, not knowing when this COVID situation will end. We have had glimmers of hope, only to be landed back into lockdown. It is tough. The shepherds are isolated out in the fields. So many this Christmas are literally isolated in bedrooms for fear of spread of the infection. Yes, the shepherds have a lot to say to us, we have a lot in common with them, who could have imagined that!
But, and here is the good news, the hopeful news, it is in their isolation, in the darkness that the light comes, and their situation is transformed! They move out of the darkness and journey towards the light, Christ. Life for them will be changed forever in a positive way because of this encounter. What a great hope-filled message that is for us! Yes, things are difficult, but more often than not in the scriptures it is in the moments of darkness that God speaks. In the midst of a dark world, God becomes flesh and transforms the world with His light!
How is God speaking to us this Christmas? Could he be saying life is fragile, appreciate the great gift it is? Could he be saying, I have blessed you with family and friends, do not take them for granted, treasure them! Could he be saying, your health is important, enjoy it and take care of it? Could he be saying I have blessed you with the gift of the environment, the gift of a beautiful world, it is quite fragile, take responsibility for caring for it and do not take it for granted!
As we, like the shepherds on that hillside struggle with isolation, darkness, the unknown, may we like those shepherds be open to God’s message breaking through, sometimes in the most unexpected of moments! It is a message that leads us to Christ, Christ who transforms our world and transforms how we look at it and experience it.
Paul Claudel said “Christ doesn’t explain our suffering, he shares it and fills it with his presence.” May Christ’s presence fill our hearts, our struggles, our frustrations this Christmas and may that loving presence guide us forward into the hope of a New Year when we can see and experience our lives, our relationships, our world in a new way, transformed by His grace!