Today the Church of St John, Middletown is being re-opened and rededicated.  Next Thursday the Chapel of the Irish College in Rome will be rededicated to the praise and glory of God after a major work of renovation.  The centrepiece of the renovation is a beautiful mosaic in the sanctuary.  

The mosaic, which is a picture made of precious stones, represents Christ and Mary, his mother, surrounded by the saints of Ireland.  I am glad to say that St. Patrick, St. Brigid, and St Oliver Plunkett, all saints with Armagh connections, are shown in that lovely mosaic.  In the mosaic, Jesus holds in his hand, the Book of the Gospels.  On the page that is open we see the words:  I am the Good Shepherd. For Jesus is indeed the Good Shepherd.

  •     The shepherd that never runs away
  •     The shepherd that knows his flock
  •     The shepherd that loves his flock
  •     The shepherd that ultimately lays down his life for his lambs and his sheep

Sometimes the enemies of Christ have the insolence to suggest that Christ is not such a good shepherd after all.  They would not dare to say so explicitly but they would be hinting at it.  They would be pointing to things like the decrease in vocations to the priesthood and religious life and perhaps implying that the Good Shepherd may be forgetting about us.

But the Good Shepherd never forgets his people.  This is why he raises up people to build and renovate churches where the Good News can be preached and heard, where faith can be nourished, and the praise of God’s name sung.

That is why the Good Shepherd inspires people to think no only of themselves but to be mindful of others – especially the hungry and the homeless; the Good Shepherd inspires his followers to stand at gates and on street corners to collect.

The snow has made us all more conscious of the needs of the little birds and of the animals.  But, first and foremost, let us not forget our fellow human beings and their needs.  The Good Shepherd inspires people to challenge poverty wherever it is found – as happened last week with the publication of a joint statement by St Vincent de Paul, St Mary’s University College, Belfast and the Northern Ireland Catholic Church Council on Social Affairs entitled:  Challenging Poverty in Northern Ireland.

Because the Good Shepherd knows and loves his people, he raises up candidates to become Permanent Deacons in the Church.  The word ‘deacon’ basically means servants.  The deacon is essentially one who serves.  That service can take many forms – the service of the Word of God – that reading and explaining and preaching the Good News – so that people may hear that Good News as Good News.  It means prayers with, and for, God’s people.

It can mean service at the altar in the form of celebrating the sacrament of Baptism, or witnessing, on behalf of the Church, the sacrament of marriage – which is always celebrated and administered by the spouses themselves to each other.  It could mean bringing Holy Communion to the sick and elderly and housebound – something that is already being done and will continue to be done by the ministers of the Eucharist.  
Finally, being a Deacon can mean serving that section of the Family of God who are poor and hungry and homeless – who are sick or in prison.

So today is a red-letter day in the history of the diocese as six candidates officially declare their desire to serve the people of God as Permanent Deacons.  I thank them.  I thank their wives and families who support this decision.  I thank Father Gates and his team of helpers who have conducted the process of selection and preparation and formation.  I ask God to bless all concerned in this noble adventure now and always.  The Good Shepherd does not, and will never, leave his beloved people without the care of his saving grace and love.  

Today’s celebration takes place on a day when the Church really gets it teeth into preparing for Christmas.  We are constantly reminded of the ever diminishing number of days left until Christmas.  The hint is to get on with the shopping and spending, the decorations and the Christmas cards and all the rest.  

Now I am all in favour of all of that – provided it is kept in proportion to our means and that it is not allowed to become so overpowering and oppressive as to cause us to forget the real meaning and purpose of Christmas.  I am delighted that the world makes such a fuss about the birthday of my Lord and Saviour – provided that my Lord and Saviour does not get lost in all of that fuss.

To make sure that this does not happen, the Church has, what you might call a couple of big hitters which it wheels out very prominently at this time of year – every year. They are the prophet Isaiah and St John the Baptist, St Joseph, the foster father of the child Jesus and, of course, the Virgin Mary – the mother of Jesus.  Between them they continue to haul us back to concentrate on what Christmas is all about.

Christmas is essentially a remembering of the first coming of Christ.  That is why we have cribs to remind us of how it actually took place – in a stable in Bethlehem – because the big busy world had no place for them in the inn.  The big busy world and indeed all of us need to be reminded to make a place for Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the Inn of our Hearts.  If that does not happen, well I am afraid Christmas will not really mean very much – no matter how perfect all the other preparations may have been.  

Bethlehem was King David’s city and David was the son of Jesse.  That is why Israel could write foretelling – hundred of years earlier:  

  •     A shoot shall spring from the stock of Jesse
  •     A scion thrusts from his roots
  •     On him the Spirit of the Lord rests.

The prophets took care of the remarkable preparations for the coming of Christ.  But the immediate and detailed and most important preparations were entrusted to the one and only John the Baptist.

Strangely those preparations took place not in the big City of Jerusalem but out in the wilderness of the desert.  I would say that there was not nuch use for credit cards in the desert!

But obviously there was great use for a character like John the Baptist – because the people flocked to him in their thousands from all over the place.  What was his secret?  Someone has ventured the opinion that it is extraordinary how a mortified man draws people.  They admire the man whose needs are minimal, who is the Master of his own appetites, who has a deep interior freedom.  John the Baptist, with minimal clothes and minimal food was a magnet.  People trusted him because he could not be bought.

His message was simple and clear:  in fact Jesus began his preaching with the exact same words:
Repent for the kingdom of Heaven has come near”.

The people believed him and, as a sign of their belief, they were baptised and they confessed their sins.

Some years ago the Archbishop of Dublin, Desmond Connell, wrote a Pastoral Letter for Christmas entitled:  Come Home for Christmas.  It was an invitation to go to Confession for Christmas and I think it takes us to the heart of the Christmas message.  Jesus came preaching repentance of his sins because he knew that if we did not do so and change our lives, his suffering and death would be of no use.

John the Baptist had fierce words of condemnation for the Pharisees and Sadducees despite the fact that they came to him for baptism.  He rejected them because they had rejected his message of the need for change in their own lives. They went through the motions without any real change of heart.

Who are the Pharisees and Sadducees of today?  I don’t want to judge anyone but it is possible to go through Christmas, enjoying all the benefits of food and drink and presents, without making a real effort to change our attitudes towards sin and the need to repent, and the need to think of others besides ourselves.

The final point is to remember that Jesus came in the flesh, as a human being 2,000 years ago.  He will come again in glory at the end of time.  But Jesus comes now – in a real but mysterious way – recognising him now and welcoming his call to repent – that is the secret I think of a happy Christmas.