Christmas Eve 2023 – Homily of Archbishop Farrell

Christmas Eve 2023 – Homily of Archbishop Farrell

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Homily of Archbishop Dermot Farrell
Mass at St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Christmas Eve 2023


The chorus of Handel’s Messiah begins with a delicate “For unto us a child is born”, and builds to a thunderous “And his name shall be called Wonderful…” In similar manner St Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus progresses from Caesar issuing his decree of census and control to “the heavenly host, praising God and singing:

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and peace to those who enjoy his favour” (Luke 2:14).

However, the confidence and hope of Luke’s wonderful account would appear to ring hollow in the context of the violence that has unfolded in the Holy Land in recent weeks. Its mystery and power have been emptied out by unspeakable horror and untold suffering, by an unrelenting “murmur of immense misery.”

Born into a Time of Immense Misery

The shadow of the cross also falls on the Christmas story: the journey of Mary and Joseph is not without pain; the birth of Jesus is not without distress. Trying to make sense of the suffering inflicted on the innocent by the cruel and insecure king, St Matthew turned to the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loudly lamenting:
It was Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted,
because they were no more.” (Matt 2:18)

The Gospels point to God’s presence in the world as it is; not God’s presence in some idealised world—the world as we would like it to be. Tonight’s Gospel, and our faith, point to another reality: unlike the rulers of this earth, God does not come with the weapons of war, or the instruments of oppression. No! The living God does not come like that! The living God comes to win us from within, to make us his own from within. Christmas is no externally imposed conquest of who and what we are. Christ wants to take hold of our lives and transform them from within. Christ comes to be born in us.

Still the instruments of war and terror exist, and they are active. In the light of the suffering we currently see in the Holy Land, as well as in the cynical war in Ukraine, and in various conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, we cannot help but ask what has really changed since Herod’s day. Following the unjustifiable terrorist attacks by Hamas on the 8th October, the people of Gaza have also come to know the “rod of the oppressor” of which Isaiah speaks (9:4). Gaza has been made, in effect, an open prison where thousands of innocent men, women and children die, and the old and infirm perish for lack of access to hospitals and food. “On those who live in a land of deep shadow…,” said Isaiah. Relentless aerial bombardment and shelling wreak havoc and confront us with the deep shadow that can lie at the centre of the human soul. The dignity that is every person’s due appears to be erased, and everyone involved is drawn into a downward spiral of degradation and loss. The rhetoric of hate, is far from “the peace that knows no end,” promised by the first reading. From where we sit, it is easy to speak of peace, and rights, and solutions. However, words can often come cheap. In the face of the degradation inflicted on everyone involved in these conflicts, we cannot content ourselves with what has rightly been called, “some vague solidarity, based on abstract altruism.” To honour the Prince of Peace, requires more than reading the Christmas Gospel. Must we not also work for peace if we are to honour the Prince of Peace? Christ did not come only to be born in Bethlehem: he came to be born in us. If we follow the Prince of Peace, if we bear his name, must we not try to live like him? How do we live Christmas in these dark and weary days?

Living Christmas in this time of darkness and loss

Perhaps, first of all, we live Christmas by being people of truth, by not denying the difficulty of the times in which we live. “Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken,” says the opening of tonight’s Gospel. We glimpse a familiar reality: a powerful empire imposing its will on its subjects, not for their benefit, but for the benefit of those in power. Christ came into the world as it was, and he comes into our world as it is. In the past ten years, the pandemic and other crises have demoralised many across Europe, and have eroded confidence in many governments. We see fears being stoked, with many effects, among them the return of migration to the top of the political agenda.

To live Christmas is to act with hope in these difficult times. But act we must! Many are those who offer shallow, simplistic solutions, which—in the end—solve little. Like Jesus, who was constantly put to the test by his opponents, we are called to look beneath the surface of things. In the personal sphere, we are a generous people. Maybe the next stage, is for us to enshrine that generosity more deeply in our public life. To take a phrase from tonight’s Gospel, “there is room in our inn,” room for those driven from their homes by wars, and economic deprivation. We may not forget our history!

St Luke continues, “So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee and travelled up to Judaea, to the town of David called Bethlehem …in order to be registered together with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” The child born in Bethlehem was born as one like us, and he was born to people like us. He is one of us. He is our brother, and both in him, and in our shared humanity, we are all sisters and brothers. These words can trip off our lips, but to live them is to live Christmas. Seeing the world as “them” and “us” impoverishes us all, weakens us all. When Christ is born in us, when Christ is alive in us, and arises within us, “there is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all … are one in Christ.” (Gal 3:28)

Born to Us as Brother Born in Us as Lord

Christ is not only our brother, Christ is our Lord: “Do not be afraid,” said the angel to the shepherds, “…I bring you news of great joy, …Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Christ is not our Lord in some distant sense, but in the heart of our lives. In coming into the heart of our world, God puts his ‘faith’—as it were (see Gal 2:16) in God’s hope for God’s creation, and relies, not on the exercise of external force, but on an appeal to the deepest desires of the human heart. We cannot remain silent. We have to reach out. To live Christmas is to be true to our deepest selves. We can make a difference.

Let us not be discouraged by the littleness of what you can do. Remember the mustard seed, and remember Christ on the cross, who in his powerlessness, cried out “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” Can we not at least do the same? “My God, My God, why have you abandoned them?” This prayer of Christ in us will not leave us unchanged.

At Christmas, we celebrate that the Son of God came to us, to be with us as we are. Surely this tells us how we are to be with each other. What would happen were we to follow Christ in the manner of his presence among us? Here is the power of Christmas! It is a different power. The apparent ‘power’ our Church once had, is well and truly gone! What we still have is Christ and his way. May the Holy Spirit give us the hope and the faith to welcome him, to make his way our own. May the words of the angel to the shepherds become the prayer of our hearts, the desire of our lives, “Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you…” May he be born in us… again and again.

+Dermot Farrell
Archbishop of Dublin