Homily notes for Christmas 2006

Welcome: Visitors, parishioners, non-Catholics, friends, and neighbours.

As we celebrate this Christmas Mass let us embrace in our prayer our families, our friends, those who are separated from us for what ever reason, those estranged, those sick and dying, and all those who have died. Let us also embrace all the peoples of the world who need a Saviour.

When I was putting up the Christmas sign in front of the school I had trouble with the word Christmas. I spelt it with two "s"s! It was soon pointed out and I changed it. It is a reminder though that our word "Christmas" comes from two old English words "Cristes maesse" which has 2 "s"s. Literally it means the "Mass of Christ". Our one word "Christmas" has taken on a multitude of meanings over a number of centuries. For many today it has little to do with the Mass or with Christ.

In one church in Europe, there was a custom that when the locals entered they bowed to a blank whitewashed wall. They had been doing it for generations. Nobody knew why. And no one asked why. Then the Parish council decided that the walls needed cleaning (trust the Pastoral Council to change things!). As they cleaned the wall they discovered traces of a painting beneath the whitewash. So they carefully cleaned the remaining chalky paint and found an ancient painting of Christ on the cross. The bow they gave as a sign of respect had remained but the reason for it had been long forgotten.

We are a bit like that in countries that derive their heritage from Christianity. We often pay lip service to something whose meaning has long been forgotten or suppressed( eg Xmas). For believers, the Mass of Christ which we celebrate so regularly is our remembering of the story which is at the centre of our lives.

We know St Luke's telling of the story of the birth of Christ. He tells us that Jesus was laid in a manger. A "manger" is a feeding trough for animals. Luke mentions it three times in his account of Jesus' birth. Once just after the birth itself. Then the word is used by the angels describing the events to the shepherds. Finally Luke uses it in describing what the shepherds saw in Bethlehem. A manger is hardly what we would like for a baby's cot today. But for these poor people it was all that was available.

But it was important detail for Luke to tell because it demonstrated the poor circumstances of Jesus birth. It highlights the extraordinary event taking place. Why would God let this happen? The mystery of the "Word made flesh and dwelling amongst us" as John says in his Gospel is about a God who would enter into the most human, the most messy areas of our lives. This is the mystery of the incarnation. In a feed trough for animals the Bread of Life was offered to the world.

It can be hard to believe that God wants anything to do with us. Because we are very aware of our failures and our incapacity to do what we believe we need to do. We believe that he would not want touch us with a barge pole. After all, God is God and we are only flesh and blood. Then again, that seems to be born out by our experience. We can seem so deserted by God when we really need help in all those impossible times in our lives. We really are a people who walk in darkness as the prophet Isaiah says. Where is the light?

The child, helpless and vulnerable is laid in a manger. A family at the mercy of an emperor who calls for a census requiring a long journey, is telling us that the direction to follow to gain our true humanity is to be found in the gift of self to others. It can cost a lot. But there is nothing clearer in the Gospel than that. It is the story consistently told from Jesus' birth to his death. Any other direction may bring power, wealth, control, pleasure, but not necessarily light or peace. All those things lose there meaning without the love that gives of itself. Jesus is the mystery of life made visible.

That Jesus is the Saviour we need is beyond doubt for the believer. It is simply a matter of experience. He is present to us in our birth and in our death. In our every joy and in our every sorrow. Why should we expect God to be present in one and not the other? He is present to us in every brother and sister on this journey through life.

The constant grace of Christmas which sustains my own life is the daily discovery of the presence of God in lives, which are both joyful and tragic, of people I meet every day. There is so much goodness and generosity. So much to be thankful for. Merry Christmas.

Fr Graham