I love visiting the cribs in various churches this time of year. Many of you, have by now placed your crib, in a sacred place at home. Saint Francis of Assisi, was the first to introduce visually displaying the crib. He did so in a deliberate portrayal of the deep poverty and yet great love, the Christ child, was born into. A young mother and father, placing a tiny little baby in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. There was no room for this baby in the inn, his birth was extra dramatic where eventually Mary and Joseph, found shelter in a lowly stable. The first to be made aware of this tremendous new life were the outsiders. Shepherds, by their very nature lived on the outside. Their lives were nomadic and hardship was the norm. I have no doubt, that when the angels appeared, with the melody of hope, their hearts were instantly lifted. When they went to examine and validate what they had been told, their immediate response was one of wonder and awe, in the presence of Emmanuel “God among us”. Their silence, was a prayer filled by God’s grace. The birth of Jesus Christ surrounded by cattle and sheep, was and continues to be such a powerful encounter, God became one of us. “The word became flesh and dwelt amongst us”.
Christmas comes at the darkest most tender moments of the year. We yearn and long for the light, even in the winter soil, the first glimpse of green shoots remind us “When winter comes can spring be far behind”. We all carry within us a vulnerable nature. It is in this space where God’s grace yearns to be born again. Yet another year, 2023, has quickly passed. Yet, the Christmas message remains timeless. ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us.’ God is with us. Jesus Christ is the light who shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not put out that light. More than that, in a time of so many threats to our humanity and our well-being, War in Europe and the Holy Land, poverty, famine, migration on a massive scale, homelessness; the Christmas Message speaks pointedly and timelessly once more into these and many other situations too.
The image of the baby Jesus in the crib, is a most cherished one, but also can be very challenging. A God, who appears as a defenceless child, is not the angry, arrogant and judgmental God. A God who appears as a defenceless child breaks out from the categories of those who think only in cold rationality. We may be able rationally to come to accept the existence of God, but human rationality will not lead us to the God who appears in the birth of Jesus Christ. A God who appears as a defenceless child is not a useless fairy tale: a God who appears as a defenceless child is a powerful advocate for us: not a God who above all claims personal prerogatives. It is not just that we can identify this God as one like us in all our challenges, but a God who identifies himself with us and brings us into his own life of grace and truth and salvation.
We live in an Ireland which is becoming increasingly ambiguous in its understanding of God. Alongside men and women of deep faith and commitment there are those who wish to build their future and the future of our society by removing God from the public square. There are those who are too busy to pay much more than lip service and outward cultural adherence to God. There are those who struggle with the very idea of God, because of the harshness of the world we live in and the mystery of evil. There are those who are angry with God and with the Church or indeed are angry with God because of the Church. How many times do I hear the phrase: “I am just hanging in there by the tips of my fingers”.
Why are people afraid of or unsettled by a God who appears as a defenceless child? What is it with a defenceless child that upsets? Some would wish to banish the God who appears in a crib off our streets? Others, believers, would feel happier with a warrior God who builds ramparts of defence. We have to ask ourselves as believers how a God who appears as a defenceless child challenges us about how we live our lives. The God who rejects conventional defences challenges us also to be there for all those who are wounded and alone and burdened and troubled. We are called to be with them unconditionally, not building up within us defence mechanisms based on prestige, security or self-centeredness.
Christmas calls us to change our lives. It is not about pointing to others. We know well how much self-centredness remains in each of our own hearts. We know how much we believers, just as any other, are infected with the same sense of superficiality which can easily be proliferated in our world. Where do we look for true security? The scripture tells us that God “makes us secure in justice and integrity”. Justice and integrity cannot be achieved simply by laws and good policies. Justice is attained by men and women who live justly. Integrity is attained by men and women who live integrity, whatever the cost, not for fame or recognition, but because integrity belongs to being truly human. We celebrate the birth of Jesus and we regain at this celebration something of the wonder we experienced as children. But wonder is not something for children alone. We all have to rediscover that sense of wonder in the face of what goodness and honesty, justice and integrity can attain.
I pray this Christmas may be a space where we learn selflessness after the Jesus who came to give himself for our salvation without any pretentiousness. Pretentiousness divides; mercy and compassion heal and reconcile. The message of the birth of Jesus in simplicity and defencelessness helps us to understand that such dreaming and idealism are possible. May the birth of Christ bring health and healing to us all.