HOMILY GIVEN BY
CARDINAL SEÁN BRADY
ST. PATRICK’S CATHEDRAL, ARMAGH
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light
on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone.
You have made their gladness greater,
You have made their joy increase.
For there is a child born for us – a son given to us
This is the name they gave him.
Wonder, Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace
These words never fail to lift my heart, especially at Christmas. The truth is that we all need a lift– at some time or other. At some time or other we all find ourselves living in a land of deep shadow in the darkness of doom and gloom. The darkness of despondency and despair, knock at everybody’s door at some stage or other.
These words of hope are especially welcome this Christmas. We are at the end of year that has brought a lot of darkness. I don’t have to list it all but in Ireland many are experiencing a fullness of difficulties this Christmas.
Some face a Christmas where a loved one is seriously ill; at home or in hospital, perhaps having had news that a certain treatment has not been successful and maybe facing into a New Year feeling hopeless or despairing.
In Ireland this Christmas there are many people who face great challenges to hope this year. The economic recession; the repossession of homes; the return home of so many migrant workers; the loss of jobs. All of these have left many people anxious and despondent right now. Perhaps some of you are struggling to make ends meet or to keep your business afloat. Perhaps you are mourning over the death of a loved one and there will be an empty chair at the table this Christmas day in your house. Maybe you are lonely and really missing someone who is absent this Christmas.
For some weeks now our country and our Church have been reeling. Reeling over the contents of the Murphy Report which describes the hurt and damage done to children abused by priests and the mismanagement by Bishops and Religious Superiors in dealing with reports of allegations of abuse. Perhaps you are feeling angry with Church leaders who put the reputation of the Church before the safety of little children.
Once again I apologise to the survivors and their families. I declare my abhorrence at the breach of trust and the crimes that have been committed.
Yes, there are many reasons to feel angry and let down. There are many reasons to feel sad and ashamed.
Yet, there are also many reasons to rejoice and be happy. There are many reasons to give thanks and praise to God. There are many reasons to hear again the words of the Angels to the shepherds.
Listen, I bring you news of great joy,
A joy to be shared by the whole people.
Today in the Town of David – a Saviour has been born to you
He is Christ the Lord.
There are reasons to rejoice and be glad for it is precisely into this agonising world, into the here and now of our country and our Church that Jesus first came. He continues to come, with His blessing. He too comes to bring us news – Good News of great joy – the Good News that our God is not a distant, lonely God but a God of love and compassion – a God who is slow to anger and rich in mercy – a God who is ready to pardon and forgive. For Jesus is, in fact, the Word made flesh – God’s word of ever-faithful and healing love who comes to bring us fresh joy and new hope.
You may ask:
• How can the light of Christ dispel the darkness?
• How can this birthday of Christ be, in any sense, joyful and happy in the circumstances?
To discover the answers to those questions. You may have to ask another couple of questions:
How did he come?
Why did He come? And
How was he received?
I never cease to be amazed at the story of that first Christmas. I have travelled, by car part, and only part, of the journey, that Mary and Joseph had to make from Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem in the south. It took us hours by car, up some steep hills and down into some deep valleys – so you can just imagine the hardship of that long journey and the time it took.
I have visited the actual grotto or cave or stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. Today it is covered by a Church that has been built over it. You go down steps into it – there are several lamps lighting it – but you still see the bare rock and it is very small – very tiny. You get a great idea of the simplicity and the poverty of the place where Jesus was born.
Jesus – the Saviour – was born into a world that couldn’t have cared less. Let us face; that is how it was. Except for a handful of shepherds – not exactly the most influential members of society in their day – and a few wise men from the East – the world was too distracted and busy to even notice. But you have to admit that the Lord of Heaven really confounded the pundits. For them a much grander arrival might have seemed more appropriate. Instead, he made his entrance as a tiny baby.
So Christmas is the celebration of the birth of the Son of God who chose anonymity and obscurity in preference to pomp and ceremony. The fact is that he wanted to be one of us in a most ordinary way. In Bethlehem he made the point powerfully. By being born homeless and cold in the filth of a stable – far more dispossessed and marginalised than anyone could have imagined.
Jesus came poor and powerless – to be our Saviour – a Saviour who would free us from our foes and from the hands of all who hate us. He came to show us the kindness and love of God, Our Father. In response we have to give up everything that does not lead us to God.
So who are these foes?
Anything or anyone, who does not lead us to God, but leads us to one of the other gods.
How can a poor, powerless baby save us from anything?
Yes it is a great mystery. It is hard to believe that all of God’s infinite power or majesty is wrapped in a few strips of swaddling clothes and sleeps helplessly in his mother’s arms or sleeps soundly on the straw in the manger.
No wonder the world despises a Saviour like that! What good is a savour like that? To the eyes of those who have no faith, such a Saviour is absolutely useless.
But then it all depends on what sort of Saviour you expect, and what the Saviour expects of us. St John draws our attention to a slightly unexpected lesson which we perhaps too often ignore. He comes to those who have been created in his image and they did not know Him. Jesus came to those who had received preparation and they did not accept him.
When God himself decided to dwell among us and give us the answer to some important questions about the meaning of life, you would think we would welcome him gladly and eagerly. But the way he indicated would have led people out of their comfort zone. As a result, many turned their backs on the Saviour. The fact is, we are all tempted to hang onto the darkness and flee the light. Overcoming this temptation can be harder than we think.
Another fact worth noting – God will not force faith upon us. Christ did not come to bring Heaven to Earth. He came to lead those who would accept him, from Earth to Heaven. We had all gone astray and he came to point that out and to set us on the right road again.
I find the Christmas sermons one of the hardest to write and preach. There is just so much to say – in the Readings of the three Masses. I am always intrigued that it was the shepherds who were the first to see and honour the new-born Jesus. Shepherds at that time would not have been noted for their piety. In fact, they had a bad name for thieving and stealing. They lived in the fields with their flocks. They took turns in watching over the sheep. I suspect, however, that they were close enough to God. They knew better than most how much they depended on God – for the size of the flock of new lambs each year, for the growth of the grass, and the availability of water and for security from the wild animals. They were well aware that they themselves were not saints. They were probably open and honest about that.
The Gospel tells us that the shepherds were terrified at the approach of the Angel of the Lord and at the experience of the glory of God. That is worth noting because I would say that those men, who slept in the fields and faced wolves and robbers, were not easily terrified. It is often recorded in the Scripture that terror is the normal, natural reaction of human beings at the approach of God.
So maybe it would be no harm to check our own feelings tonight – at the approach of this Christmas. If we feel totally self-satisfied and self-sufficient it might not be such a good sign. It might be a sign that, like so many on that first Christmas night, this Christmas is not going to touch our lives in any significant way. But if tonight you find yourself just a little apprehensive about what God might be asking of you – rest assured that you are in good company – in the company of the shepherds for example – in a better place than if you felt complacent – not that the angels asked anything of the shepherds.
The shepherds were simply told where they would find their new-born Saviour. But fair play to them – they did not dismiss or scorn the idea of a Saviour – who would be found in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Instead they said to each other – ‘let us go and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us’. They found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the manger. So whatever else you may find in your Christmas stocking or at the foot of the Christmas tree, I hope that in some real sense, like the shepherds, you too will find Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus – and if you do – I am quite sure you too will go back glorifying and praising God for all you have heard and seen. If you do so then I can assure you that you will have a happy Christmas. If you don’t somehow catch that spirit of praise and glory – then I am afraid you will not have caught the Spirit of Christmas.
You sometimes hear it said that the true spirit of Christmas has disappeared. Now maybe I am fortunate but I came across a lot of what I would consider the true spirit of Christmas this Advent. It reminded me of why Jesus came into the world in the first place.
One example comes from the Parish of Monasterboice near Drogheda. They have an Annual Parish of Monasterboice Award. This year that award went to a married couple – Mr & Mrs Briscoe and their adult son who has special needs. The parish was thrilled to acknowledge the heroic efforts of the parents to care for their son, Gerard, despite his cerebral palsy and total deafness. They were happy to honour Gerard also who responds so magnificently to the love which his parents shower upon him. On the night, Gerard was the life and soul of the event – smiling radiantly at all who had come to share the joy of the occasion. In that family’s care for each other – there was, for me, living proof that the Spirit of Christmas is alive and well. I could quote many other examples but one will be sufficient.
St Patrick’s Primary School, Armagh had a lovely Christmas play this year. It was the famous story of Scrooge and the part of Scrooge was played by a very accomplished young lady. The moral I took away was that it is more blessed to give than to receive.
I believe the real joy of Christmas lies in discovering the Saviour who comes to give so much –
Life to the full in body and soul;
Pardon for all our faults and failings if only we are willing to ask; and
Hope in our darkest moments.
May that be your experience of Christmas this year.