“The birth of Christ, which the Feast of Christmas celebrates, cannot be ‘cancelled’ … When Christ appeared, as the warmth of God in the winter night, our faith received a new dimension” – Bishop Farrell
Like most things in 2020, this will be a Christmas unlike any other in our lifetime with socially distanced celebrations and uncertainties hanging over our hopes. Since last March we have had to re-think our way of living and the way we engage with each other. We have learned that we are vulnerable. Despite all our medical and technological advances, we can be and have been wounded by the Coronavirus.
Life has been disrupted because of the worldwide pandemic. Some have talked about postponing or cancelling Christmas. Yet others have talked about “a meaningful celebration of Christmas.” However, the birth of Christ, which the Feast of Christmas celebrates, cannot be “cancelled.”
With the birth of His Son, God joins us definitively in human history —a story that Nativity plays in our schools depict every year. As the Gospel tells us, Jesus of Nazareth was born in the days of Caesar Augustus, “while Quirinius was still governor of Syria.”
The story of Jesus of Nazareth, therefore, is not a charming fable that takes place once upon a time, set apart from its time and the concerns of its day. No, Jesus is born in the historical setting of Bethlehem — effectively, a village, with distinct limitations and definite possibilities: a place where political and social unrest was common, in an era in which brutality and violence were endemic, where people’s lives were marked by struggle and impoverishment. In Jesus, God was working in and through human history, and we should not doubt that He is able to do so today. This year, more than ever, we need to hold onto the central hope of the Feast of Christmas that God joined us in the form of a child, and is still with us, bringing us renewed courage and consolation in a time of great uncertainty.
The birth of the Christ-child invites us to look to the future with hope. But not a naive hope that next year will be necessarily better than the last. Rather, with the Incarnation, the life of God is stretched open to welcome all that we are. Christ opens us to the future, not a future of our own making — the fragility of which we increasingly appreciate — but the future which is God’s future for us.
At Christmas we are not just celebrating the birth of a famous child. The birth of every child is a hope-filled event. But, if we are celebrating nothing more than a romanticised birth, eventually we will be overcome by discouragement. The child of Bethlehem grew up. He experienced the sorrow of human life: seeing the death of family members and friends, suffering illness and pondering over the seeming arbitrariness of earthly life. Jesus of Nazareth understood what it meant to suffer and, perhaps more sadly, understood what it meant to see others suffer and die. That is why it is crucial to realise that something much more than the birth of a child has happened in Bethlehem: the Word became flesh. God came to dwell among His people. He has united Himself to humanity — to us — so inseparably that He is genuinely “God from God, and Light from Light,” truly God while remaining truly human.
Since March not a day has passed without reminders of the tragedy has that come upon us. Sickness and suffering, loss and mourning remain part of our national consciousness, like a dull ache that will not go away. Christmas and the coming of a new year, the first without lost loved ones, will be a time of deep emotion for bereaved families. We find ourselves in a dark time, a long winter. But, winter passes, as the motto of Saint Kieran’s College in Kilkenny reminds us — quoting the Holy Bible — hiems transiit, winter has passed; this dark time will also come to an end. When Christ appeared, as the warmth of God in the winter night, our faith received a new dimension. He taught us a new way of living and loving in this world. In Christ, God truly becomes, and remains ‘Emmanuel, God with us.’
The Good News of Christmas does not begin on Christmas night to end on Good Friday. To Christians, the joy of Christmas is not limited to Christ’s birth. Neither is it limited to His death. It is His death and Resurrection that give meaning to His birth. The Good News of His birth has not faded after 2,000 years. And why is this? Because Christ has not died. He is risen, He is alive, and so His Spirit continues to reach us, to well up in our hearts, and particularly so at Christmastime when the Good News is made visible in such a vulnerable way.
Today’s Crib cradles today’s Christ. Let the child abandoned in the streets, the old abandoned in homes and institutions, the child workers who rarely see the light of day, those made redundant because their companies have been asset stripped to generate dividends for shareholders, the violence done to our sisters and brothers by the pillage of nature and the exploitation of an earth God meant for all, the refugees denied the opportunity to work or the migrants housed ten to a room by unscrupulous landlords, let them not wait in vain this Christmas to know the warmth of God that is given to all (see Pope Francis, Let us Dream, especially 116).
We need hope more than ever at this time. While we wait for that day when a vaccine becomes widely available to end to this global pandemic, let us continue to allow ‘the light of faith to shine through our deeds’ (2nd Mass of Christmas). As we continue to navigate this pandemic and other disorders, may we remember God’s tenderness and closeness in the presence of God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
Lord, we trust you are with us in these days. Whisper your word of comfort, encouragement, and hope to all who need it now. Be present with all who are unwell and all those whose health is endangered because they care for them. Make us bearers of the light that comes from Bethlehem.
Bishop of Ossory