Christmas Homily

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Homily notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin,

St. Mary’s Pro Cathedral, 24th December 2017


“The story of the birth of Jesus is familiar right across the Christian world and beyond.  It is the story of “a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” because there was no room in the inn.  The scene is remembered in poems and in songs and carols, and in both religious and non-religious art.

Tonight, in Cathedrals and small churches all over the Christian world, just as we have done before our Mass, replicas of the infant Jesus have been placed in the crib to remind us of this remarkable scene and to remind us of the true significance birth of Jesus.

Even the most hardened heart cannot but feel a certain sense of tenderness when we come to this moment on Christmas night.  We remember being brought as children to the Crib in our local Church and many of you will remember a tender moment in which you brought your own child to the Crib to see the simple yet heart-warming story of the birth of Jesus. The stark simplicity of the birth of a child in the most humble of circumstances never fails to remind us of innocence, poverty and of our dependence on others.  Thank God, for most of us even the rampant commercialisation of Christmas, that dominates our society for months each year, finally fades aside at least for a moment when, in the silence of this holy night, we are captured by the deeper message of Christmas.

The narrative of the birth of Jesus that we heard in our Gospel reading is not a historical narrative in our modern sense.  It is not that every detail has been verified with the criteria of objectivity of historical research.  However, every detail is important from another point of view.  Luke’s narrative is not so much history as theology.  Each detail is carefully crafted to bring out the true meaning of the event.  Each detail tells us something about the central figure of the story: the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  Each detail is there to surprise and challenge our human understanding of what is an extraordinary message:  In this small child, God has become one like us.

The message of Christmas is not just about innocence and simplicity.  The message is that it is in the language of innocence and simplicity that the Saviour speaks to us and that it is only under the mantle of innocence and simplicity that we will ever encounter that Saviour, Messiah and Lord.

In our Gospel, reading two signs are fulfilled.  There is the sign given by the Angel that they would encounter a child wrapped in swaddling clothes.  Then there is another sign hidden in the song of the Angels: “Glory to God in the highest heavens and peace to those who enjoy his favour”.

For the Jewish people one of the effects of the coming of the Saviour was that a time of peace would be ushered in as a precious gift of God.  The child that is born is to be the Prince of Peace.

Although written centuries beforehand, our first reading leads us more deeply into understanding the mystery of Christmas.   It is a prophecy about the birth of a child.  This child, however, would realise what for many would be considered only dreams: people who walked in darkness would see great light; their gladness would be greater, their joy increased, the rod of oppression would be lifted, cloaks rolled in blood would be burnt and consumed with fire, justice and integrity would be installed.

Then and today people will ask: how can a child accomplish all this?  We find the answer in the final line of that first reading, “the jealous love of the Lord of hosts will do this”.   The birth of the child is about God, The God revealed in Jesus Christ is not a God ruled by human plans.  He is the God who truly can install justice and integrity and restore light and gladness and joy for all who are trapped in darkness.

That is what we who celebrate Christmas as disciples of the God revealed in Jesus Christ are called to do in our lives.  We are called to be followers of this God.  It is indeed also a call that can be understood by those who have not found Jesus but who are seeking what is good. All of us can work to bring this message of Christmas to anywhere where darkness prevails.

The darkness has indeed not yet been dispelled.  How can we celebrate this night of peace and not be aware of the fact that we live in a world where peace is more than fragile, where conflicts rage and fester and where the responses are often phrased in a language that is inflammatory rather that words and deeds of peace.

There are new signs of violence in Ireland.  There is the arrogant violence of that business of death, the drug world, which is unscrupulous and despicable.   There is the continued violence of stabbings.

In these days, in particular, I ask myself how we can celebrate this beautiful night of peace and not remember the anxieties of many elderly men and women living alone and who have now begun to fear the night for their own safety.  How can we celebrate the joy childhood when children are being, trafficked, exploited, and abused and homeless?

Good can prevail.  Christmas makes our hearts different, even for a moment.  Doors are opened, feuds are reconciled, old enmities are put aide.  This child who is born touches our hearts with a tenderness that we so easily hide in other moments.

“There was no room in the inn”. The story of the birth of Christ is the story of the poverty of indifference, poverty where others do not notice.    Yet even in the poverty of the birth of Jesus, there are the signs of human warmth.  The simple swaddling clothes keep the child protected and warm; even the manger is a place of protection and nature and the animals are sensitive.

At Christmas, we can sometimes feel that the challenges of poverty and exclusion are too great for any individual.  We need courageous and decisive plans and sufficient funding to overcome the suffering and the deprivation of those who live on the precarious margins of society.  But people also need the comfort of simple human warmth.  It costs nothing but our effort.

We need a society where politics and economics play their part but we also need a society – indeed a Church – where gladness is made greater, joy is increased and where the many who today live in darkness encounter a great and a welcome light and where they encounter “the jealous love of our God” through the way we live.” ENDS