Reverend Professor Michael Mullaney is President of Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth. This homily was delivered during the annual Christmas Carol Service in Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth.
In the city of Philadelphia, there is a poignant and imposing monument to the Irish famine. It is an Irish famine ship: on one side, life-size figures of emaciated and despairing emigrants embark leaving home; on the other side, smiling and hope-filled faces disembark. A fresh start in a new world.
Recently, there has been a heightened awareness of the arrival to our country of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, knocking on our door in search of protection, security, and a better future. People who have lost or given everything, in some cases even their lives, in a desperate attempt to escape the devastating effects of climate change, war, persecution, and poverty.
We have been horrified by the harrowing stories of migrants found hiding and, more shockingly, dead in truck containers – modern coffin ships. We are wrestling with the complex issues around housing and integrating migrants in asylum centers. More worrying is the emerging fear of ‘the other’, the foreigner, the stranger. To some extent, the fear is legitimate because the preparation for this encounter is lacking. Some parish communities’ traditional tranquillity seem to be threatened. The problem is not that we have doubts and fears, but when they condition our way of thinking and acting to the point of making us intolerant, closed and perhaps – without realizing it – even racist.
Most of us would balk at the idea that we are racist because we understand racism on an individual rather than structural level. Many of us can point to friends of different color, religion, ethnic group and believe we are open, unbiased and tolerant to the ‘other’. However, a recent EU Report highlighted worrying patterns of racist behavior in Ireland. Surprisingly, figures of harassment, discrimination, and racism were significantly higher in Ireland than in many other European countries. A new language of racism, mostly opportunistic, understated, but no less toxic, has emerged in our public and political discourse, stoking hostility towards the ‘other’ and testing our own sense of hospitality for the first time.
Ultimately, none of us can escape bearing a resemblance, warts and all, to the sense of cultural and economic entitlement and privilege, even superiority, that raises and forms us in the western world, including Ireland. It takes a lot of critical thinking and intentional unlearning to change that.
Even Jesus had to confront his ingrained prejudices; indeed, even racism. The Gospels recount his stunning and unique encounter with a Syro-Phoenician woman desperately seeking a cure for her sick daughter. The disciples dismiss her as she was considered racially inferior. Surprisingly, Jesus sharply rejects her appeal. His mission is to the Jews only; his tribe; the children of God. When the woman insists, Jesus dismisses her again– calling her shockingly a ‘dog’ – a racial slur. The woman doesn’t challenge his insult. Like so many victims in history, she has internalized her inferiority. But her repartee: “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” is the only recorded encounter that left Jesus speechless. If we truly celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation, of God who takes human flesh, it should not surprise us that Jesus could not have avoided the effects of the prejudices that had shaped his human and cultural identity from childhood.
We do not know what Jesus thought in that moment. But the Syro-Phoenician woman dislocates Jesus from his narrow tribal suppositions and prejudices about the ‘other’ represented by her. She ceases to be an ‘outsider’. God’s heart could not be closed to her. She too is one of the children of God. Physical healing is given not only to her daughter but ultimately the deeper wounds of isolation, marginalization and discrimination become central to Jesus’ healing and liberating ministry in the Gospel. In this transformative encounter Jesus demonstrates that regardless of how unwittingly and unknowingly we are part of the problem, we can choose to reject racism and hostility to the ‘other’, the stranger, in ourselves and in our world, committing ourselves to the slow, hard work of transformation.
The season of Advent that prepares for the Nativity of the Lord comes from the Latin word ‘advenae’ which means the ‘one who comes’, the ‘other who comes’, the stranger, the foreigner who comes to our threshold unexpectedly.
Isaiah – the great Advent figure – speaks to us this evening of the hospitality for all peoples on the mountain of the Lord. Saint Paul exhorts us to welcome each other as we would welcome Christ, especially the Gentile – the foreigner, the stranger.
The readings from Genesis and Luke which bookend our carols this evening, recount Abraham and Mary’s and encounter with strangers. Only after breaking bread with the stranger under the Mamre tree does Abraham recognize his guests as visitors from God. And Mary, although fearful of the sacred Stranger, tends carefully to the reassuring voice of love that whispers, “Do not to be afraid!” Mary chooses openness over fear; Abraham chooses hospitality over hostility.
Through the prism of Advent, we can see the stories of many strangers, refugees, asylum seekers, hidden in the story of a child whose expectant parents traveled far from home in search of hospitality in an unwelcome place. In a shed in the backyard of a crowded inn, the revolutionary spark of God’s solidarity and hospitality for the stranger was kindled. In Bethlehem, a small chink opens up for those who have lost their land, their country, their dreams. Mary and Joseph, for whom there was no room, are the first to embrace the child who gives all of us our document of citizenship as the Children of God and who lovingly embraces all of us equally regardless of country, color or creed.
Friends, preparing for Christmas is more than a safe, private, familial enterprise, but embraces the great public issues of our time, including the value and dignity of every human person. It impels us to choose openness over fear; hospitality over hostility. To see that the stranger or the foreigner is not a threat but a treasure who can become a source of new grace for our communities. In our preparing for hospitality, in our being open to new forms of relationships and friendships to those who come to seek a fresh start in our cities, towns, villages, and islands, we welcome, we see and we encounter God who comes anew.
Máirtín Ó Direáin, the great Irish poet from Inis Mór, captures the heart of Christmas hospitality in a short poem Cuireadh do Mhuire / A Christmas Invitation to Our Lady. (A copy of the poem was placed on each of your seats.) Ó Direáin penned this beautiful and gentle verse during Christmas of 1942 when Europe was engulfed by war. His little island, perched on the edge of the vast Atlantic, was helpless to influence the world’s powers in any way, save to offer hospitality to the displaced, of whom there were many millions.
Do you know, Mother Mary,
where you’ll go this Christmas
and you seeking a roof
for the Holy Child,
when every door
is closed against Him
with the hate and conceit
Would you ever take up
an invite from myself here
to a sea-girt island
far away in the West?
There’ll be candles shining,
lit in every window,
and turf fire blazing
on every hearth.