Homily Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland
Pro-Cathedral, 24th December 2010
We gather on this dark and cold night to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The birth of a child brought light and comfort into the world, two thousand years ago and still does today.
The birth of that child in humility teaches us who God is. God is not one who shows power for the sake of power, but one who shows us that the deepest values in life and existence are about simplicity, goodness and love.
We want to celebrate our Christmas in that spirit. We confess our sinfulness and our self-centeredness and we commit ourselves to being disciples of that light and that light alone which comes from Jesus, Son of God, Saviour and Redeemer, God with us.
We have just heard once again Saint Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus. It is a narrative that we have all heard many times and yet a narrative that never fails, every time we hear it, to move us.
In the midst of all the hardships, the hectic and the anxieties of life in these days, as at so many other difficult moments throughout the centuries, there is something unique about the Christmas message of the birth of Jesus. The message of Christmas can and indeed does change our lives, even if only for one day. The message of Christmas can make wars cease; it can touch the hardest of hearts.
Many have thought and continue to think that they could improve on that message, with messages of commercialisation or consumerism. Others have felt and continue to feel that they can obliterate the message of Christmas through messages of cynicism or doubt. There is, however, something unrepeatable and that requires no explanation about the stark simplicity of Saint Luke’s narrative. The story of the birth of Jesus moved us as children and continues to move us today.
The message of Christmas is a curious one. No matter how much we are tempted by and exposed to the apparent sophistication of a consumerist mentality, the reality of Christmas brings us back to simplicity. Even in the cold, bleak winter we are enduring – climatically, economically and socially – the message of the birth of Jesus engenders human warmth that gives us hope of something better for us, for our lives, for our children and for our world.
Christmas is a time when generosity breaks out anew. There is the generosity that is shown in gifts, signs which recognise our thankfulness to others or which recognise the simple, dreamy innocence of children. There is the generosity of supporting those in need through our financial contribution and through the way in which in the Christmas season we look out for those who are lonely or in need in a different way. No one should feel abandoned at Christmas.
Christmas changes the way we look at values. It recalls that there are more important things that just looking after ourselves. It is a message which in all simplicity recalls that there is still in our world something called real goodness. The Christmas message recalls us to remember that each of us is capable of living such real goodness and that achieving a better world will only be attained through all of us living that goodness. Every time we fail to radiate such goodness we fail ourselves and ultimately we end up alienated from our true selves, perhaps even hating ourselves for our thoughtlessness. There is no way in which we can celebrate Christmas in rancour.
But deep down the message of Christmas is not a message of momentary emotion. It is not simply the message of a sentimental film; the message of the birth of Jesus is something which changes reality in a truly fundamental way.
Who is the one who is born in the harsh simplicity of the stable, ignored by those who live in security and influence? He is the one who Isaiah prophesied would come as “Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, and Prince of Peace”. These are titles which seem to indicate someone of great power. And this is true. The surprising thing is that the one who is all-powerful, the God of power and might, chooses to appear in our midst in a form that is the opposite of how we think of power and might: in poverty and insecurity. The security which marks the birth of Jesus is not that of the instruments of power. The security which marks the birth of Jesus is the simple goodness and fidelity that is represented by the care of Mary and Joseph and the peace heralded by Angels who represent the protection which comes from God alone. The birth of Jesus and the message that it brings is a message about God’s work among us. Where God is truly in our lives peace and harmony, love and goodness abound. The child is entirely the fruit of God‘s loving action and he brings God’s action into our world.
The message of Christmas surprises us because it turns many accepted values upside-down. Even if tomorrow we will go back to the old values of everyday, the Christmas event allows us for a moment to see that goodness is possible. The secret of celebrating Christmas is in allowing that to happen in our lives. The message of the birth of Jesus shocks us into surprise and we should allow that shock and surprise to shape how we live.
Faith is the response to surprise. It is the response to the surprise that God would take on human flesh. It is response to our surprise at the humility within which God reveals who he is. It is the response to our surprise at how the revelation of God’s values shows the emptiness of our values.
The moment in which we loose our sense of surprise at the message of Jesus is the moment in which we loose contact with the logic of God and begin to think that on our own we can create a better world than God’s. When we as Christians loose the sense of surprise at the message of Jesus, we drift away from God into personal smugness and self-satisfaction. We may never come to say that we reject God, but like the majority of those in Bethlehem that night, closed in the warmth and comfort of their own thinking, we too may go on with our lives in total ignorance and indifference to the fact that God is among us in a surprising way, calling us to live in a different kind of security and peace.
Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus places that birth in a historical context. Luke tells us that Jesus’ birth took place at a particular moment in history, when Caesar Augustus was emperor and Quirinius was governor. The emperor was carrying out a census; he wanted detailed data to demonstrate and celebrate the extent of his power. Jesus is born into that time and into that world. His birth, however, is not marked by any similar gesture of demonstrating and celebrating the extent of his power. Jesus is born far away from the symbols of earthly power. It is not just that there was no room for Jesus to be born, but that he chose to be born marginalized, identifying himself with those in any age for whom there is no room.
Jesus is born into the world on the distant margins of earthly power. Who then can recognise him? Only those who live the same distancing of themselves from the symbols of power; only those who allow themselves to be surprised by what they encounter.
When we as Christians loose the sense of surprise at the message of Jesus, we drift away from God into personal smugness and self-satisfaction. The same can be said of the Church. Renewal in the Church is not simply about structures and organization, no matter how important these can be. Reform comes above all through allowing the message of Jesus to surprise us. A Church which looses that ability becomes a tired, stale, smug and self-serving Church and when the life style of the Church becomes smug and self serving it looses its real source of life and is doomed to wither. The horrific story of the recent scandals has shown us what happens when the Church is tempted to be self-serving. In every generation the Church has to renew itself and strip itself of false symbols.
The message of Christmas gives us each year a glimpse into what the Church as body of Christ in the world should be like. It reminds us about how we should live as the community of believers in the world of today. Luke reminds us of the particular historical moment in history into which Jesus was born. He reminds us that Jesus was born not just into that world, but for that world, even though the majority of those around him did not recognise him and lived indifferent to his birth.
The message of Jesus and the witness of his Church continue today in our world and for our world. Times are difficult for the Church. Many seem to find the Church irrelevant and unattractive. Some are hostile, many more indifferent. The story of the birth of Jesus into an indifferent world should encourage us to realise that indifference and hostility do not mean that the message of Jesus has in any way lost its vitality and its validity. Indifference and hostility should rather shock us back into recognition of where we ourselves have allowed the message of Jesus to become stale in our lives. It should keep us alert in order not to fall into any sense of compromise about the message of Jesus, but to live it authentically and faithfully as did Mary and Joseph.
It takes faith to recognise that the Christmas message is not just a nice story, but that it is the message of a God who came into the world to save us from the perennial temptations of pride, power-seeking and self-centredness and to bring us his new life. On Christmas day we all catch a glimpse in our hearts that the way shown by Jesus is the true way and that it can be the way we live our lives.