I love the story about a little boy playing the part of a shepherd in the school nativity play. He had just one line to say, “Behold, the Saviour of the world”. He had practised for weeks but when the day came, unfortunately, his mind went blank. He couldn’t remember the line but he did remember what his mother always said when she saw a new baby, “He is the image of his father.” Of course the little boy was quite right. The Christ-Child is the image of his Father. In him we see our God made visible. As a result we are caught up in love of the God we cannot see. For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. That explains the great outburst and outbreak of goodwill we experience every year at this time as people express their love for each other by giving gifts, sending cards, spending money to help other people. So our response is, “Thanks be to God for the gift of His Son”.

The Christ Child is the image of his Father. This is why his coming is Good News- a God who comes to us, not in power or in wealth, but in poverty, in humility, in weakness. The result is that, whether we like it or not, we are caught up in a love of the God we cannot see.

The love in question, of course, is not our love for God but God’s love for us and whether we like it or not we have got to make some response – to give some answer to that offer.

Sometimes we hear people say, “Isn’t it terrible what’s happened to Christmas”, meaning if only we could get back to the real meaning of Christmas. Of course the true meaning of Christmas can certainly be lost in the mad rush of selling and buying. We must guard against that. But the truth is that God entered the real world, the world of flesh and blood in Jesus Christ – the working-world of people with jobs to do, animals to feed and lots of worries. Otherwise the Good News of Christmas would not be the Good News which it really is.

It is Good News because the line, which the little boy forgot, is also an important one, “Behold the Saviour of the world”, for the Christ-Child is indeed the one and only Saviour of the world. He has made salvation possible for the whole human race.

You may ask, why did the Son of God have to come to save us? From what are we being saved? You see originally God had this dream of sharing His life and His happiness with each one of us but God’s plan was sabotaged – man refused to go along with the plan, refused to play his part. Our first parents refused to believe and refused to obey. The result was that a fatal flaw was introduced into the heart of the human condition. The consequences are to be seen straight away. Cain murdered his brother, Abel. The tower of Babel introduces division and confusion. These results are still with us. We find ourselves threatened from within and from without. For all our good intentions we are tempted, even the best of us, to destroy what is perceived to be ‘enemy’, to divide by ‘taking’ rather than unite by ‘sharing’.

So God had another plan – a rescue package. He sent His Son to remedy the fatal flaw. It was for you and for me, and for each one of us, that God was made man. Eternal death would have awaited us had Christ not been born in time. Our misery would have been everlasting had he not performed this act of mercy. We would never come to life again if He had not come to die our death. We have our part to play – give up violence.

The prophet Isaiah talked about people who walked in darkness, seeing a great light. He was talking about a particular kind of darkness, the darkness experienced by the citizens of Jerusalem, who had been defeated in war by an enemy invader. As they were being led into exile and captivity to provide slave labour for their conquerors, they had their eyes plucked out to make sure they would not escape. Well God never intended His sons and daughters to treat each other in that way. That is the darkness that Christ came to dispel.

What is the darkness and the oppression of our times? Perhaps it is the tragedy of 80% of the population of the planet is trying to survive on only 20% of the income or the fact that one million, two thousand million people have to struggle desperately to try to survive on less than a dollar a day. This is happening at a time when, more than ever before; humanity has the capacity for a just sharing of the world’s resources. Again what about the plight of the world’s 22 million refugees and displaced persons? Because of war, political oppression, or economic discrimination, they have been forced to flee their homeland – some never to return. They have often endured torture or atrocity, brutality and violence. Cain continues to raise his hand against his brother, Abel. They have often lost, or just simply had to leave behind, all their possessions. They come in search of employment. They hope to find peace.

Tonight in Bethlehem there is certainly no peace. For the second consecutive year all celebrations of Christmas have been cancelled. Jesus came to tell us that this is no way for us to treat one another. That kind of behaviour does not lead to God and we must give up everything that does not lead to God. It is as simple as that. It is not a question of Christianity having failed but rather that it is a matter of it not having been tried.

We live in a world that is often fearful and fretful, especially after the events of 11 September last. The power of evil often seems to triumph, darkness threatens to eclipse the light of the Bethlehem Child. The message of Christmas is that darkness will never prevail – goodness and virtue will ultimately be victorious in our world.

We are fearful because from the human point of view the power of evil often seems to triumph. Yet, to the eyes of those who have faith, the love and the mercy of God are far stronger than the power of evil. Jesus came to tell us about that mercy and that love. He not only told us, he showed us. That is what matters.

To ensure that evil does not triumph is not enough that we just sit back and fold our arms and say, ‘sure God will take care of it’. No, God relies on us to play our part, to make sure that mercy and love get the upper hand and not hatred and bitterness. Here in Ireland a new light has dawned with the prospect of peace. But that peace has not yet fully arrived despite the beacon lit by the Good Friday Agreement. In fact the past year has been, in some parts of Northern Ireland, quite difficult. Yet there are definite signs of hope for better things to come. We must continue to strive for the establishment of right relationships with each other, which offer the only solid basis for a lasting peace. We must, above all, deepen our relationship with God, the source of all lasting peace on whom we depend at every moment. The God who so loved us that He gave His only Son, Jesus Christ. He is our peace and the real hope of the world.

We also live in a world that sometimes seems to have lost its sense of reverence and respect for life and for the author of life. Christmas tells us there is joy at every child born into the world. I am sure that every parent here present can testify to that. But there is also a sense of wonder and responsibility. For every life is something given on trust, something to be preserved with a sense of responsibility and to be perfected in a spirit of generous service to God and neighbour.

Every life is to be protected from that which threatens to destroy or diminish it – from abortion, euthanasia, violence of any kind, from abuse of drugs and alcoholic drink, from reckless behaviour of any sort. Every life is a combination of body and soul and the life of the Spirit is also to be nourished and cared for and protected from dangers that threaten it.

The Gospels tell us that Mary treasured all the words spoken about her new-born son and pondered them in her heart. Those of you who are mothers will remember how you felt when you first set eyes on the face of your firstborn. You probably gave thanks for the safe arrival and wondered what the future might hold. Like Mary, we would all do well to ponder the crib this Christmas and see there the loving kindness of the heart of our God. He comes to set us free from fear and to save us.