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!
The contemporary celebration of Christmas is a mix of religious and cultural traditions and customs. While modern times have seen the feast take on commercial and secular tones, at its heart, it still remains for many the celebration of the Birth of Jesus Christ. Retelling the story of the first Christmas has the innate power to inspire moments of spiritual reflection and renewal along with the practice of charity and outreach to those who are in need. It has become an important time to gather as a family and indeed to gather as a Christian community. This year, the restrictions in place because of the Coronavirus mean that we may not be in a position to gather as usual for our religious services. This situation challenges us to find new ways of reflecting on our faith and praying in our homes. It is hoped that this guide, prepared by the Dioceses of Clonfert and Elphin, will assist you in doing just that.
I heard an eminent medical person on the radio last week raising concerns about the rising number of COVID cases. He suggested Christmas should be postponed until spring. As a medic his first concern is the health and wellbeing of people. However, it illustrates that for many, Christmas has become a mere holiday period rather than the celebration of Christ’s birth.
In contrast, I happened to see the last “Late Late Show” of 2020. It was a showcase of Irish musicians and singers all there to help raise funds for the “Simon” Community. This heart-warming, generous group of people got together to reach out and help those who are most vulnerable in our society. This is one example of so many kind people in our parishes and communities who are helping those in need this Christmas. These are all examples of Christianity in action! Towards the end of the programme, Bono, of U2 fame, was interviewed. He posed a basic, but very important question; “What is this Christmas thing about?” In order to answer this question, he described how, at a Carol Service one Christmas, he really listened. From this deep listening he received an insight into the heart of Christmas as he went on to say, and I quote; “I started to think about the fact that this baby was born in straw, this is a mother and child in a delivery room with goats and sheep. Think about it. And if you believe this story, which I do, of unknowable power expressed as utter powerlessness, it really struck me. The divinity of people who are vulnerable and poor, that is what Christmas is about, it’s not about anything else.” Personally, I found it refreshing to hear someone with Bono’s fame, name the essence of what Christmas is truly about, something, in my opinion, has been notably absent in recent times.
Christmas is about our unconditionally loving God, the creator of the Universe, becoming a vulnerable little baby on a bed of straw. God enters our humanity so that we could share in his divinity! Through this act of pure love, we are challenged to recognise the spark of the divine in those around us.
This year has been a struggle for so many of us. Our lives have changed in so many ways. However, the goodness, kindness, generosity, and love of so many people, continues to be an inspiration and a source of great hope! My special thoughts are with those who have been bereaved since this time last year. Christmas is a time when memories surface of loved ones who are no longer with us. We hold them in our hearts knowing that our loving bond continues. I also remember those who cannot get home for Christmas, my thoughts and prayers are with you and your families.
This Christmas will be very different in our parishes as the numbers allowed to enter our churches is limited. I extend a huge word of thanks to priests and parish teams who have worked so hard, and continue to do so, to ensure our places of worship are safe for all who enter. For those who cannot physically come to church, I extend a welcome to join us via webcam. You can find a list of parishes with this facility on our diocesan website www.achonrydiocese.org. Alternatively, perhaps you might be able to call into your local church for a quiet visit to the crib over the twelve days of Christmas.
On a personal note, 2020 is a year I will never forget. In early August I said farewell to the parishioners of Newbridge Parish and the people, priests and Bishop Denis of Kildare and Leighlin Diocese. It is not easy saying goodbye, but the support has, and continues to be amazing from my home diocese, my family and friends. On the 30th of August I was ordained bishop to serve in the Diocese of Achonry. It is a very new and different experience for me. I have been fortunate to visit all the parishes and have received a very warm welcome from the people and priests throughout the diocese, something I deeply appreciate. I look forward to being able to meet many more people throughout the diocese in the coming year, hopefully when life returns to some form of “normality.”
May I take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy and peaceful Christmas. Keep safe and as we celebrate the birth of Christ, the Light of the World, may His light fill our hearts with hope for 2021!
Is mise le meas,
+ Paul Dempsey,
Bishop of Achonry