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Homily - Christmas 2021 - Bishop McKeown

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25th December 2021 

We associate many symbols with Christmas. And the crib still plays an important role. But we tend to think of the figures in the crib as being static. However, the Christmas story in the bible is full of people on the move far outside their normal routine. Joseph and Mary have travelled to distant Bethlehem, the shepherds leave their fields and come into the town, the Magi come from the East and have to return home by a different way and the Child Jesus has to travel to Nazareth via temporary exile in Egypt. Even Santa Claus does a lot of travelling! The God of the Bible is moving us on the roads of our lives, not merely boxed in one corner of it.What message might we learn this very strange year?

Firstly, all of these people had their plans undermined as they had to journey at someone else's call. Life meant living with the disruption. Life meant expecting the unexpected. We can only imagine the turmoil for Joseph and Mary after the angel Gabriel message about her expected child. The shepherds must have wondered whether they were just being stupid. The Magi will have been seen as exotic and a little bizarre. But they stuck to their journey.

There is a temptation to see the Covid event as something that has interrupted 'normal life'. But life is never 'normal' and in our full control. For many older people, life involved living through the abnormal Troubles and an economic crash. For younger people, pandemic life has included being unable to study or socialise or have part-time jobs. But the pandemic has not put life on hold. Living through this crisis is part of life, not an interruption of life. We grow spiritually and humanly by facing unexpected challenges, not by expecting to avoid them. Life is difficult. We grow by facing its obstacles and not merely complaining that we have obstacles to overcome. Christmas tells me to have courage in the face of the uneven road that we must travel. Christ is found by those who search and stumble on, not by those who think they have found him or by people who are afraid to leave the comfort of their certainties. As Pope Francis said recently, God's divine love inspires, guides, and guards us while we overcome the human fear of leaving behind 'security' in order to once more embrace the 'mystery'. Jesus in the stable pushes us out to the complexities of life for it is there that God chooses to be revealed. A cleaned-up Christian faith that forgets the smelly stable and the awful events of Calvary is not true to Jesus. Life is never all tinsel and rosy cheeks. Church life is never a matter of escaping into the Church building and seeking protection. It means being with Jesus and standing with those who feel very unprotected. Can we give our young people the gift of being able to face the unknown and painful realities - and not be crushed when their plans are changed?

Secondly, the travellers all journey because they believe that there is one who makes sense of the seemingly crazy events that they endure. Jesus' life was never easy. Faith is always a leap in the dark, daring to take the next step, even when it involves taking a risk. The Christmas message may be attractive for the child in each of us. But it is a story that invites us to journey to unattractive places and asks us to wrestle with uncomfortable questions. It is not a story that soothed anybody involved. It gave Mary much to ponder in her heart. She and Joseph had to make a decision to accept that God's wisdom was in the middle of their difficult journey to Bethlehem, in the strange shepherds and Magi and in the persecution by Herod. When we face problems, it is easy to ask, "why has this happened to me?". A maturing Christmas faith says, "This is very difficult – but God is hidden somewhere in this apparent mess." Our proclamation of belief in Christ should never go down the route of promising success here. The God of Jesus is not some heavenly Santa Claus, giving presents to those who behave well. Christmas dares us to believe in the God of apparent failures, the God who gives tough challenges to those whom he has chosen – but never abandons them. Can we give our young people the gift of believing in more than in a market that wants to exploit them and then dump them?

Thirdly, there is the challenge to look for the lessons that we need to learn from how we reacted to the pandemic. That means asking the question about what new wisdom is being born, unseen and unnoticed in this pandemic. There are questions for us as parishes. How do we move forward to ensure that we build healing Christ-centred community where Covid restrictions have limited relationships? We ask how we build communities which promote health and do not contribute to mental illness. We have to speak out because we have seen how the rich and powerful can exploit every crisis to create ever greater gaps between the haves and the have nots. We have to be speak out and act because, when things get difficult, it is always the poor who get hit worst. They have little in reserve and always live on the edge. We have learned that there can be a richness to life without self-indulgence. Can we give our idealistic young people a gift by our example of having courage and including the little ones in the stable whom others prefer not to notice?

This is the beginning of the 12 days of Christmas. The Baby Jesus wants us to celebrate and find joy. After all, the message to the shepherds was news of great joy. But Christ's example asks us to remember that God loves the world in all its mess and that the little Jesus is with us in his word and sacraments as we seek to bring healing into that mess. Jesus asks us to bring joy not just to ourselves but to those places and people who sit in the dark, hoping for joy that never seems to come. We face many challenges in 2022. We will need courage to face them. But the Baby of Bethlehem would ask us to rise to those challenges because we believe that there is a God who is in charge. He wants us to build hope for the future, not fear of the future. That is the sort of Happy Christmas that he wants us to enjoy.

+ Donal McKeown

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St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302

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