RTÉ Christmas Reflection 2007

Good afternoon. I hope you are already enjoying a restful and pleasant Christmas day. I am delighted to be joined today by Archbishop Alan Harper. Last January Archbishop Alan was appointed Church of Ireland Primate and Archbishop of Armagh. Archbishop, I welcome you and wish you well. We would both like to pay tribute to Archbishop Eames who presented this Christmas Day message for many years. We send our good wishes and gratitude to him and to his family at this special time.

I would also like to thank RTE for giving us the opportunity to share our faith with you today. It is our faith in God made visible in the child of the manger, a God with open arms, a God yearning to embrace the world and each one of us in his love.

Christmas speaks to us of love. Love of God for us. God is love and God so loved the world that he sent his only Son. The new born baby speaks to us of the self-giving of God, the self-emptying of God to become one of us. The carols remind us that God choose to be born in simplicity, in the poverty of the manger. One day the wood of the manger would be exchanged for the wood of the Cross – the price of love.

I realise that for some, Christmas is not an easy time. The loss of someone we love, financial set backs, strained relationships, ill health, loneliness, these can all leave us feeling isolated or out of sorts with the celebrations at this time of the year. Yet the key message of Christmas is that God wants to be with us in all our needs. Putting on our flesh, dwelling among us, God has entered into all our anxieties and suffering. He did so that we might find new heart and new hope in the experience of his love. My prayer is that all those who know pain of any kind at this time will find peace and healing and new hope in the Christ-Child, in the friend who knows all our needs.

As 2007 comes to an end, there are many reasons to be hopeful. The past year saw further economic growth and prosperity across our island. We continue to have one of the strongest and most robust economies in the world. We should be very grateful for that. Peace in Northern Ireland has really taken hold for the first time in many years. People who, only last year, were suspicious and distrustful of one another are making a real effort to build a better future together and for the common good. At an international level, we have seen the first peace talks between the leaders of Israel and Palestine in seven years. Let us pray that they will continue and bear fruit.

Yet new challenges to our hope also emerge. We have new forms of substance abuse which now take their place alongside our regrettable reputation for the abuse of alcohol. Cocaine and other illegal drugs have become a real threat to our happiness and our cohesion as a society. They offer a false hope and a false escape from the pressures of life. We also have the increasing stress on families and others affected by the instability in international banking and finance. We have the ongoing challenge of poverty. It is shocking to think that 51 homeless people in Belfast and Dublin have died over the last eighteen months. What does this say about our priorities as a society of unprecedented wealth? We have the ongoing concern over global violence and terrorism.

Then there is the challenge of global warming and climate change. The future of the children born in Bethlehem, Belfast, Dublin or Dubai this day is by no means certain unless we alter our behaviour towards the environment as a matter of urgency. The simplicity of the stable into which the Son of God was born should challenge us all to a lifestyle which is more sustainable.

And yet for all these challenges to our hope, there is a more fundamental truth which Christmas offers us. God is with us. We do not face today or the future on our own. The child of Bethlehem was victorious even over death. His love prevailed, just as the goodness and hope that is within each of us can prevail with the help of God. This is the truth we celebrate today. It is why we celebrate with confidence and with joy.

Christmas is not a relic of the past, but a task for the future. As the poet Howard Thurman tells us in his Christmas Prayer:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star of the sky is gone,
when the kings and the princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flock,
the work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among others,
to make music in the heart.

I hope there will be lots of good music in your hearts and in your homes today and in the year to come.