“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light”
What is the darkness of which the prophets speak? It is everything in the world that is confusing. The confusion about what is right and what is wrong, about what is true and what is false. Jesus came to tell us that there is such a thing as right and wrong, truth and falsehood. His Church continues to teach what he taught, to be a light in the darkness.

Yesterday I met a lady in St. Oliver Plunkett hospital in Dundalk. She quoted to me a favourite phrase of the late Father Michael Hardy, who died earlier this year. Father Hardy used to say, “Jesus came to tell us that he is going to prepare a good place for all of us”. That is an example of a bright beacon of light in a world so confused about the purpose of our being here on earth in the first place. It is also a bright beacon of hope, offering something to live for and to strive after.
Jesus came to this world to reveal the beauty of God. St Augustine tells us,

God is beautiful in Heaven,
beautiful on Earth,
beautiful in the womb,
beautiful in His mother’s arms.

How many painters and sculptors have tried to catch and express that beauty in marble and in wood, on canvas and in fresco?

The light of Christ comes to us to enable us to see God’s beauty, wherever it is to be found. That beauty is often hidden, concealed in unexpected places. We need that light to see the beauty of God, especially when it is concealed in what at first sight appears to be something ugly, for example a neglected slum or a prison cell.

The light of Christ summons all of us to see the Word made flesh on the face of all those we meet. He promised that those who hunger after justice would have their fill. The hunger for a just world is one in which the beauty of all God’s children is recognisable and recognised – whether those children are our relatives or refugees, our acquaintances or asylum seekers.

The light that scatters the darkness challenges us to respect the life of every human being at every stage of its existence. It summons us to respect the processes that lie at the origin of life and not to transgress the boundaries or usurp the powers that properly belong to the Author of Life.

The prophet Isaiah had foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. The town of Dundalk had only a couple of week’s notice of the visit of President Clinton. Yet, it got all its preparations carried out. Despite the fact that Bethlehem had several centuries notice, it seems to have been less well prepared for its illustrious visitor. But then would any place ever be fully prepared for the greatest event in the history of the whole world – the birth of the Son of God – the Lord of Heaven and Earth?

Perhaps it wasn’t altogether by chance that there was no place in the inn. The outcome was that he was born, not in a house but in an outhouse, surrounded by dumb beasts. His first visitors were poor, despised shepherds. They found him wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. Yet he is their Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord. There, the splendour and majesty of Heaven, meet the poverty and simplicity of this Earth. It is a great mystery, which holds deep lessons for all us. I believe that only someone with the sense of wonder of a child can begin to decipher those messages. In front of the crib is not a bad place to begin.
Peace lies at the heart of the Christmas message. On that first Christmas night the chorus of angels sang, ‘Glory to God in the highest Heaven and on Earth, peace among those whom God favours’. The peace in question is more than an absence of war. Peace involves right relationships. Jesus came to restore right relationships between his Father in Heaven and the human race. He came to ring the Father’s love and pardon to all who are willing to receive him. Unfortunately there are many who are so stubborn in mind and hard of heart that they despise the love and the pardon which he came to bring. Jesus also spoke of bringing a sword, a sword to separate the good from the bad; the truthful from the deceitful; the genuine builders of peace from those who seek not a real peace, but a sham peace; those who seek domination, humiliation and victory, which they then call peace. For true peace is built on justice and integrity and on truth, otherwise it is not built at all.

This Christmas we give thanks for the progress made in the long journey towards a lasting settlement of conflict in this country. We praise God for the improvement in the relations between those who were previously at enmity with each other. We recognise the good work done by so many courageous people, in so many areas of life. At the same time we realise that events such as shootings and bombings, expulsions and punishment beatings, illustrate the absence of right relationships in certain areas. They point to the absence of total peace. The impasse over policing, decommissioning and demilitarisation indicates an atmosphere of suspicion, distrust, and absence of goodwill. Such a situation does not give great hope of right relationships being easily or speedily established. There is a still an amount of road to travel. There is need for patience – immense patience – and a renewed commitment to the search for a lasting settlement.

Jesus is Mighty God and Prince of Peace. He is not a magician who can wave a magic wand to heal difficult situations without the co-operation, or against the will of the participants themselves. Everyone knows that the progress already made was the fruit of serious discussions and honourable negotiation. Those discussions required a certain amount of mutual esteem and harmony, for negotiation is only fruitful where there is a genuine effort to learn from each other, where people realise that it is easy to point out another person’s mistakes but it is more difficult to have the courage to hear what they can teach us.

A lasting peace can only be built and maintained by people of vision, that is, by people who have the capacity to think and work for the future. Those people need the support of all who are really on the side of peace if they are to continue to dedicate their lives and take risks for the benefit of generations yet unborn. They really deserve that support because a society that is constantly under threat from political or economic instability offers little hope to young people of what they might reasonably expect from life. They need that support now.

So, I call on all those who voted for the Good Friday Agreement, to once again renew their hope in the promise which that historic Agreement contains. The Belfast Agreement represents not alone the only hope, but in my opinion, an excellent hope of establishing once and for all those right relationships and that mutual understanding which we call, and which actually are, genuine peace. In this season of peace and goodwill, the support of prayers for reconciliation and for the continuation of the normalisation of relationships is essential. We place all our hopes before the Baby of Bethlehem. We ask him to strengthen them and bring them to fulfilment in our lives and in our times.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus, knew what it was to be homeless, what it meant to be a refugee and to have the life of her newborn son under threat. May she protect all those who are in desperation tonight because they are penniless, jobless or homeless. May the memory of that first Christmas move many generous hearts to help those who find themselves in that situation.

Jesus came to give us the good news that we are never abandoned or alone. Instead we are loved and we always have available to us the power to journey towards something better. This hope for a better future is contained in all the Christmas messages which we send and receive at this time of year. This hope for a better future is what lies behind the gifts we receive and which we give. We all experience this immense desire to share our story and to love and, in return, to be understood and to be loved. That is why everyone likes to be at home or among friends at Christmas. The child, born in the stable, is a sign that God has opened the door for us. No one need be a stranger to God’s Word any longer. No one need feel lonely or alone for our God is near to us. May you experience God’s saving presence very near to you this Christmas and may it be, for each one of you, a source of great peace and joy.