A Christmas relfection by Fr Brian O'Mahony, based on the homily he gave at the Vigil Mass at Westminster Cathedral on Christmas Eve, 24 December 2016.
There is a story of a teacher, telling the Christmas story with her children, encouraging them to draw the nativity scene. One little boy had included, along with Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus, an extra character, whom she couldn’t identify. When she asked him, he said to her, ‘you know Miss, he is the other guy from the song… Round John Virgin!’
Yes, it is that time of the year again, and anyone who has children, or been around children, will know that the last few weeks has been the season for the Nativity play. All over the country, children have re-told the story of that first Christmas, Joseph, Mary, the donkey, no room at the inn, the stable, the shepherds and the angels. Such an important part of our annual celebration, and vital that our children are encouraged to re-tell it year on year, even with their novel additions!
Beginnings are important, and in the Gospel of our Vigil Mass we hear the beginning of the Gospel according to St Matthew, but it is not the story that we might be expecting when we come to church at Christmas. Because we do not hear of shepherds in the fields, there are no angels singing, no journey to Bethlehem, no ‘no room at the inn’. These details, with which we are so familiar, are only to be found in the Gospel of St Luke. St Matthew, instead begins with a very long list of names, before he announces the birth of Jesus.
Although it seems long and tedious, these names are very important, because St Matthew is keen to show Jesus intimately connected to the whole history of God’s people; indeed, he is a complete fulfilment of that history. From Abraham, through King David, to Joseph, spouse of Mary, who said ‘yes’ to God’s plan. Generation upon generation of faithfulness and fidelity to God and trust in his promises.
We are reminded at this time of the year, by so many voices, not to forget the true meaning of Christmas, and it is usually summed up as being ‘about family’. This is of course true; family is very important, and it is always so wonderful to see so many families in our church, you are welcome with us. To simply say that ‘it’s all about family’, however, is not the whole story. St Matthew reminds us that Jesus too had a family, a history. Jesus, although God, had a family tradition that was traced back to the earliest history of God’s people.
The heritage of Jesus reminds us that we too, are the inheritors of a tradition of faithfulness and fidelity. In this season of memory, think of the many, many Christians who have gathered on this night. So many centuries, so many places, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ: Emanuel, God who is with us.
Recalling this, we are challenged. We must ask ourselves whether we are to be the generation that forgets. Will our grandchildren and their grandchildren continue to tell the story of Christmas, the story of hope for the whole world? Or will we allow it to be forgotten and to drift from the collective memory, because we have chosen, at least functionally, to forget God? Is it enough to come to church once a year (or twice if we can), and say ‘yes I believe?’. How can we tell the world the truth and speak a word of comfort that is so needed, if all we have to offer is a shadow of a memory of a ‘once upon a time, in a land far, far away’?
Christmas time is indeed a time of memory, but it is not a season of fairy tales. This is a triumphant celebration of the Good News, that God, our God, who created all things, and who sustains all things every second of every day. That God, who loves each of us so much, chose to come into our battered and broken world.
We gather in the dying days of the year, already looking forward to a new year, to fresh beginnings and new starts. The year that is ending has been a tumultuous one, and has left many people feeling battered and bruised. There is much that seems in flux, in chaos and even perhaps in despair. There is a sense that we really need Christmas this year. We really need a time of good cheer, of festivity and joy, a time when we hear a message of hope and of consolation. We really need Christmas this year.
This Christmas might be the first time some of us have been to church, maybe ever, maybe for a long time. Whatever brought you to here, you are welcome. Entering this sacred space, we ask ourselves, ‘why am I here? Why does any of this matter?’
Perhaps, there are some amongst the joy and the excitement, who are really absent? Perhaps, some who are hurting or in pain, or experiencing some sort of chaos in their lives? Perhaps tonight is not all happy Christmases and good cheer. You too are welcome. That is what the church is here for.
Because we must not forget that stable in Bethlehem was not a place of peace and quiet and Silent Nights. This is a young woman, and her rather frightened husband, so frightened that he nearly abandons her, giving birth in a place where animals live, because no-one could find room for them; there was no-one to welcome them. It is not clean, and it is not quiet. The stable was draughty and noisy and dirty, and I am sure rather frightening for two new parents.
And yet, in the middle of the chaos and the noise, the dirt and the smells, God chose to come. When we look at the crib, we must not forget this truth. Into this, God chose to come. Not into palaces and order, not into careful planning, but into chaos and difficulty and doubt.
And so, we are given the courage to come to that place with humility; with all of our chaos and our dis-ease. With all our foolish choices and our personal crises. We bring to the crib our doubts and our fears, our broken hearts at the plight of the world and its peoples, our impotence that we feel in the face of worldly forces beyond us. We bring all of this to the Christ-Child in the manger. We bring them here, because into this, God came, and into this again, God can and will come. We need this Christmas
We celebrate this season of such joy and excitement, such hope and expectation, the season that is so important for children to enjoy and to remember. We come to the crib, and when we see it, really see it, then suddenly everything makes sense. All the excitement, all the hilarity, the feasting and the singing. All the traditions and the symbolism, it all makes sense. We should celebrate, and with great joy, this happiest time of the year, because God has come to us, God, our Saviour, today, chose to come into the world.
Look again at our crib. There, there is the answer. There is the beginning of all hope, and the source of all joy. There is the solution to all and every human tragedy and pain. There, in that place, is God, one like us, God choosing to come to us. If that is not a reason for joy, then nothing else can be. We really need this Christmas!
Photo of Fr Brian at the blessing of the Crib at the Vigil Mass