St Peter’s Cathedral, Belfast
Readings : Is. 9.1-7; Ps 95 ; Tit. 2.11-14; Lk.2.1-14
I. The Liturgy of the Word for the Nativity : a window unto the saving mystery of the Incarnation
The Liturgy of the Word on this Christmas night narrates the drama of the birth of God in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth. With human words and literary devices these age-old and sacred texts speak of the self-revelation of God in human history.
Year in and year out, and from generation to generation, these texts provide us with a glimpse of the divine as deciphered at work in history by prophet and first Christian writers.
Prayed and thought over, these lines of Sacred Scripture, the words, and settings of these readings for the Feast of the Nativity, stretch our human sense of the transcendent. Based on these readings, our prayer and thought processes introduce us to the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God in the Christ child and to the Good News of the gospel He offers.
II. Gospel Good News in hard times
As in recent years, we hear this Good News in a time of great worry and stress for all our families. Most immediately we and our families feel the impact of the economic recession. Unemployment, loss of work, joblessness for our youth and for friends not so young, negative equity, poverty and new forms of poverty in our families and neighbourhoods loom in the ambient air. These tough and hard-hitting realities are the setting in which we receive and re-live the Good Tidings of Christmas 2012.
Beyond this immediate insecurity, a further set of questions and issues preoccupy our time. Among them feature such issues as, humanly apt models for the world economy and models for its just governance so that work is secured and wealth is produced and distributed in justice, care of the cosmos and creation, issues of gender and gender identity, the future of marriage as an institution, ethical limits and the frontiers in the bio-sciences and biotechnological research, issues of ethnic identity and its legitimate expression. One could go on.
These and a host of issues induce a sense of living at the edge, a sense of living on an uncertain frontier, that would seem to lead to possible, massive and tectonic shifts in lifestyle, in our habits, in established and accepted anthropological and cultural paradigms.
In regard to all of this stuff of our almost daily experience, a few question arise for Christmas thought and discussion : what shifts are likely to take place? Will humanity guide them so that they ennoble human life and existence? Will these shifts enhance and improve life, the system of human values in the domains of personal and social ethics? What contribution will we as Christians make to humanity’s efforts to address all these burning issues? Will you and I play our part? How shall we do so?
III Christian Faith – a faith and lifestyle for the edge
Against this sketch of our times, many thinking people, Christian believers included, have a sense of being suspended precariously on the edge. As Tennyson put it : ‘the old order changeth yielding place to new’. John Henry Newman, shared by the Anglican and Catholic traditions, friend of Fr Charles Russell, of Co Down, a priest of this diocese, who spent his life in Maynooth College, once asserted that ‘ to live is to change, and to change is to become perfect’.
In any event, if we feel on edge in the face of massive changes around us, if we feel insecure in the face of all that is happening, it is worth looking again at the narrative of Christ’s birth.
In that scene and event, it is noteworthy that God is born on the edge, in insecurity, in the provisional setting of a stable.
Indeed his mission, his permanent engagement with those on the margins, his crucifixion, his death between two thieves, reveals God as linked inextricably to the precarious edge, to the domain of the powerless, to the frontier with the unknown and insecure. This is the surprise of God as revealed in the Jewish Christian tradition.
In Jesus of Nazareth, born of the young woman Mary, and through his mission, God has revealed the power that is divine grace to address and save humanity, particularly at the edge. This Gospel grace is offered freely. Its capacity to save depends in some part on our active co-operation and the lifestyle and values we espouse in concrete practice.
IV The secular : periscope to the sacred
An intriguing feature of our times, and in which we celebrate the Incarnation, my dear friends in Christ, is that the secular order of everyday life – the new frontier issues just referred to – unveils with ever sharper profile questions of the meaning and the purpose of life.
The secular order, professional and daily experience, are birthing questions of ultimate meaning, questions regarding the purpose, dignity and meaning of human life and how such meaning and dignity are to be provided for in the structures of society.
In arenas of experience and knowledge, the secular order is unveiling ultimate questions that cannot be answered without the input of religious insight offered in dialogue with the human sciences and reason and as a living continuation of the saving mystery of the dynamic of the Incarnation. The secularist denial of the utility of such dialogue leads to an impoverishment of the secular.
The salvation-mystery of God incarnate in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christian insight that each human being bears an imprint of the divine, is born in the image of God, the life and mission of Jesus – these foundational elements of Christian faith are the grounds and the stuff of the Good News that informs the engagement of Christian faith and lifestyle with the permanently opaque and tumultuous nature of the human condition, that is ever in need from generation to generation of the word and grace of salvation.
Whatever the issues of our personal life span, we cannot totally escape the drama of salvation, the cry of the poor and powerless for justice, the human search for ultimate meaning and its codifications.
V. Christmas : a time to connect in faith with the Person of Jesus Christ
Christmas Night and Christmas Day offer an oasis in the year’s calendar. The Christmas season offers a time to re-connect with family, with friends, perhaps with the roots of one’s identity, with the person of Jesus Christ as the centre of personal Christian faith.
In this Year of Faith in particular, running from Sunday 11 October past until the Feast of Christ the King on Sunday 24 November next year, this Feast of the Nativity of Christ offers us, whatever our condition, an invitation to re-discover:
- The sacred liturgy and personal prayer
- The Christian tradition of art, culture and engagement with societal issues
- Christian thought and literature
- The biblical and Gospel contribution to our human value system and ethics
- Christian anthropology and Catholic Social Thought
as spring-boards for vigorous, thoughtful and full lifestyle, for engagement with the human condition into which God was born in order to save humanity from evil and the power of sin.
The Christ child, gazed upon in 2012, invites us to kindle our journey of faith, an adventure yes, sometimes an odyssey, always a life choice which limbers up heart, mind and all one’s mental and bodily energies.
Engagement in faith with the mystery of the incarnation leads to self-possessed living. It links us to community and socialises qualitatively. It opens our minds and hearts to new meaning, to an anthropology of salvation and to a saving Hope.
May the Hope and Joy of the Good News be in our hearts and homes, on our streets and in our neighbourhoods this Christmas and in the New Year.