December 25, 1998

Recently I read of a survey which found that Christmas is a very stressful time for many people. What a pity! I am sure Jesus never intended his birthday to be like that. But that is the way it is. Can anything be done about it? Yes, we can remember that really only one thing is needed for a happy Christmas. That is, a grateful heart. A heart filled with praise and thanks to God. Thanks for the sending of His son into the world. There is just one main reason for Christmas really and that is to remind us constantly of the great love which God has for each one of us. A love so great that He sent His son. Now Jesus is ready to come to us again, at any minute. He comes to make his home spiritually within us. All we have to do is remove the barriers and open the gates and let him in.

Christmas is a great time for remembering. And of course one of its loveliest features is the giving of gifts. A gift is a sign of love and affection. We give gifts and send cards to let people know of our love for them. But it is most important to remember the gift God gave to us at the birth of Christ – His beloved Son.

It was news of great joy. A Saviour has been born. Christmas also reveals the full meaning of every human birth – the birth of every child is an occasion for great joy and something to celebrate. For every human person has a sacred dignity and an intrinsic worth and value. So, at Christmas we celebrate and remember the dignity of everyone: the dignity of the rich and the poor, the old and the young, the weak and the strong, the useful and the useless, the loved and the despised, the ugly and the beautiful. For each and every one is made equal in the image and likeness of God. That likeness may have been deformed and defiled by crime or by sin, but remember Christ came to reform and renew and restore with His love and forgiveness. He came to call, not the just but sinners. Christmas reveals the full meaning of every human birth – the worth and dignity of every human person.

You see God has this wonderful plan; to unite everything in Christ, things in Heaven and things on Earth. Sure it is almost too fantastic, too good to be true but that is how it is. Jesus came to call us into the Family of the Father. It is a family that is essentially one, united in a unity that allows for human difference. Jesus is the centre of that unity. He is the universal reconciler – the breaker of barriers, the dismantler of divisions. No wonder the angels sang at his birth – ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace on Earth to all who are pleasing to God’. That peace is at once a gift of God and a task to be accomplished. The work of peace is a building of bridges and the healing of broken relationships and friendships.

Christmas is a time for reconnecting. Reconnecting with each other and with our Father in Heaven. We do this reconnecting in many different ways – through letters and Christmas cards, phone calls and presents, through Email and Internet, through homecomings.

But how do we reconnect with God our Father? Well, in much the same way. Jesus came to make it easy. He told the story of the prodigal son. He is saying to us that his Father is like that – rich in mercy and slow to anger. 1999 is going to be the Year of the Father in our programme of preparation for the Millennium. It will be reminding us that the whole of life is in fact a coming home to the House of the Father.

These dark December nights give added grandeur to the words of Isaiah. “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light”. Light and heat are essential at all times but especially at this time of year. Remember the panic the power failures caused this time last year. Jesus came to bring the light of God’s wisdom and the warmth of God’s love into our lives.

We have walked through some dark and dismal days during the past year. Now the light of fresh hope and new possibilities emerge with the Good Friday Agreement and the subsequent developments. As we celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Peace we give thanks for the peace that has been achieved and for the peacemakers who have achieved it. We pledge ourselves to play our part in consolidating the peace and pray for the strength and courage to do so.

We remember how the shepherds on that first Christmas night were terribly afraid. They had to be reassured and told not to fear. For the news was almost too good, they couldn’t believe their eyes, they couldn’t trust their ears. It is hardly surprising that we, who live in a world weighed down by unbelief should sometimes be afraid even to believe and to hope. We need to renew our faith that the promise contained in the Good Friday Agreement will be fulfilled.

Jesus Christ came to calm fears and to strengthen faith in the midst of uncertainty and doubt. We need help to dispel our doubts about whether the troubles are really over and about whether people are really prepared to move and to change. We know that God has plans for us, plans to bring prosperity and not disaster. We need to be convinced that without reconciliation the world cannot be at peace. We need to increase our understanding of the difficulties that have to be overcome on all sides. There is need for patience, great patience to deal with the problems which are encountered on the road. There is need for courage to transform the peace process into a reconciliation process. That transformation will involve overcoming the fear and the lack of trust and the bitterness and the desire for revenge.

Christ came into the world to overcome hatred with love. We know that He is present with us and close to us when we struggle to overcome bitterness and fear. We must not underestimate the difficulties that lie ahead nor, at the same time, be overawed by them.

Great things have been done, great things remain to be done. There are solid grounds for hoping that they will be done. May the coming of Christ help us all to pray:

“O come, desire of nations, bind
In One the hearts of humankind.
Bid now our sad divisions cease.
And be yourself, our King of Peace”

Tonight then we pray for the ability to dispel the fears that exist: the fears of change and of lost position, the fear of betrayal, the fear of defeat. We pray for trust; that our divided community will begin to trust in its own ability to deal with the wrongs of the past by working together.

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light”. The word made flesh was the source of life. This life brought light to the world. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. The light calls each one of us to be a light for our neighbours, to be a sign and instrument of God’s love in the world. By lighting our own series of lights, we give hope and courage and strength to those around us.

May your Christmas be happy in the knowledge that in our union with Christ, God has blessed us by giving us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly world. God has chosen us to be His through Our Lord Jesus Christ so that we will be one day holy and without fault before Him. That is the basis of our Christmas joy