Welcome to each and every one of you, old and young, gathered here on this holy night to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. I greet those for whom this Cathedral Church is their regular spiritual home, especially those who have prepared and who enrich our worship. I greet those who are here on this Christmas night from aboard and from other parts of Ireland. I greet those whose bonds with Church life have slackened, but for whom this night still has a special place in their hearts. I greet those who bear within them the hurt and wounds and doubts of life’s hardships, especially if that hurt has sprung from their experience of the Church.
All of us here this evening belong together. The message of this holy night is addressed to each of us. We are all called to open our hearts in a new way to the message of the birth of Jesus and to change our hearts. The simplicity of the Christmas message can be deceptive. It is a simple message but it is a stark one also. It is a stark call to all of us to rediscover the simplicity of our faith and to rediscover how to live simply. It is the simplicity of the message of the birth of Jesus which draws out from us what is best in us and brings us a happiness which the sophistication of much of modern life distorts our vision from recognising. May that simplicity fill each of our lives this evening and if only for an instant allow us to realise where true happiness in our lives is rooted.
“God’s grace has been revealed and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race”, we heard in our reading from Saint Paul. The loving kindness of our God has appeared in Jesus Christ.
Saint Luke begins his account of the birth of Jesus by reminding his first readers and all of us that Jesus appeared into the world of real history. Saint Luke reminds us of the names of specific rulers; he reminds us of the events of a census which secular historians of the time also register.
So in this introduction to the story of Christ’s birth we encounter in the first place the Emperor Caesar Augustus and the Governor of Syria Quirinius: real historical figures. We hear about a known census which was designed, as is the case with a census in our times, to record a picture of the real world and of its demographic make-up.
Saint Luke is at pains to indicate that Jesus was born into the concrete reality of history. Jesus is not an un-incarnated idea, he is a person. Jesus does not belong to the world of fantasy or that of the disassociated pious images of many devotional cards; he is not a just another figure within a marketable or commercialised annual event. Jesus is a person who came into the real history of humankind and still today is present in the history of our world. Jesus’ birth changed history. Jesus who is God took human flesh and became incarnate in the world. In Jesus God’s loving kindness truly entered human history in a new and determinant manner.
This historical introduction into Saint Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus has another significance. The history with which Saint Luke begins his account is that of the history books, the history of geopolitics; it is about emperors and governors; it is about demographics and about taxes. The census of Caesar Augustus aimed at consolidating his power and extracting taxes to support, in every corner of its territory, the supremacy of the dominant political power of the day, the Roman Empire.
Jesus appears in that concretely verifiable world but his birth cannot be identified with that world. The census reminds us of the desire of the emperor to dominate and exploit; the design of God appears in a totally different and surprising manner. God chose to reveal his plan of salvation not through the structures of geopolitical power and influence, but within the reality of a simple, lonely, anxious and disadvantaged family: Mary and Joseph. They travel alone to reach Bethlehem. Mary is expecting her child. They are isolated, exposed and vulnerable. They seek to understand. They have no armies or large business enterprises to protect them. They have no place of outward human security. Joseph provides the only shelter he can, that of his love and protective concern.
The birth of Jesus takes place yes within the politics of human history; but the real truth of that birth can be understood only when we identify with the simple love and trust of Mary and Joseph. Their extraordinary sense of responsibility to protect what is their precious gift lies far away from any sense of power or self-interest or the protection of possessions. Jesus who is the Lord of creation with his birth appears into our history in a manner in which our history is incapable of understanding, except by those whose faith was based on the simple humility which had marked the faithful believers who lived in expectation of the fulfilment of the promise, about which we heard in the first reading.
The loving kindness of God appeared in Jesus, but it was not understood and accepted. In the Gospel reading of tomorrow morning’s Mass we will recall the words of Saint John: Jesus was among his own yet he was rejected by those who were his very own. When we reflect on the situation of the Church and the difficulties that the men and women of our generation encounter in believing, it is very easy to point the finger and say that it is all due to society or to culture or to secularization and even to hostility against faith and against the Church. We have always to remember that the first rejection that Jesus encountered was rejection by his very own. Renewal in the Church must first come from conversion within the Church. Conversion is not about fleeing from the realities of the world and society and culture and secularization, it is about understanding them in a different light. Jesus is the light that enlightens but also the light that enables us to discern the realities of our life in a different way.
The loving kindness of God appears not in palaces, not in luxury hotels not even in the simplest village hostel, but in what was for the powerful an insignificant space. Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn. This was not an accident of over-booking. It is not because accidentally there was no room; Jesus chooses to be born precisely into that space which belongs to those, at any time in history, for whom there is no room, those who are excluded from normal hospitality, those who live without security. But it would be wrong to interpret that by saying that Jesus was born on the margins. Jesus is born – and that is what we celebrate tonight – not on the margins of real life, but to parents who pilgrim looking for that space in which the love of God is truly at home. That is the message of the birth of Jesus. Our calling too is to journey discerning those spaces in our world, in our lives and in our hearts in which the love of God will be truly at home.
In today’s world and in today’s Ireland there are many who are seeking to see where God belongs in their lives. They seek to understand and perhaps rekindle the faith that they have inherited. That heritage had however for many lost its simplicity and had become entwined with establishment. The starting point of their search for adult faith is all too often still the abstract God of ideas and ideologies and the theological formulae of their youth. It is often an idea of God coloured by symbols of outward establishment. Today all of us have to reorient our sights and our vision and look to find God in the person of Jesus, a radical framework in which often the mentality and the thought-patterns and the ideologies of the day do not hold centre-stage.
Faith in God can only mature when we unite ourselves and identify ourselves with this Jesus who appears as the revelation of the loving kindness of God. That revelation – and this is what is central in the Christmas Gospel narrative – takes place in a manner which the powerful both politically and religiously are inevitably destined to overlook or miss its meaning. If our God is a God conceived in terms of power or prodigies or judgementalism, then we have made our own God; we have made our own God either to reject or on to which we project our own anxieties and fears.
The birth of Jesus in such stark simplicity is not an accident. Jesus chose to be born in those circumstances to show us who God is. Jesus is born uncontaminated from any of the false sophistication and self-seeking that has brought emptiness and greed and frustration into the lives of many and indeed into society. The Christian God is not a distant much less an absent God, but a God who is present in history but who cares for and directs history.
Jesus is not an idea or an ideology but a person, a person who reaches out to us and whom we can encounter in prayer. You do not pray to an idea or an ideology. The loving kindness of our God has appeared in the person of Jesus Christ. On him we build our trust.
Let each of us here on this holy night allow this special moment of Christmas to capture our hearts for the simplicity and loving kindness of our God, not just this evening, not as something that we celebrate tonight and then leave aside until next Christmas, but as light and direction for our own lives and light and direction for building a different society for the entire year to come. May we respond with conviction to that call of Christmas to rediscover the simplicity of our faith and to rediscover how to live simply.