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Homily - Christmas 2022 - Bishop McKeown

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Christmas Day

As human beings, we have always loved stories. Down through the centuries, people huddled around fires on dark nights to hear tales of heroism and tragedy. In many cultures, storytellers were important because they could create and retain stories that held people's attention. We all know how much children enjoy stories which nourish their rich imaginations. In modern entertainment, plays, films and books are key ways for a culture to hand on how it views the past, the present and the future.

Christmas is a core part of the story that Christians tell about the world. What might we learn from it this year?

Firstly, this is a story about a God who bursts into our world. That inconvenient God is central to our way of looking at life. The strong in every generation like to think that they can be in control of politics, economics or God. Christmas turns that arrogance upside down. Christmas is a subversive feast for little people. The central characters are unknown and unnoticed by the strong. Shepherds, a stable and foreigners do not belong to the inner circle. Caesar Augustus is keen to count how many people there are in his empire so that he can extend his power. God is concerned with what one child can change the world through being little. At the beginning and the end of Jesus' life, the powerful try to swat him away as a nuisance – but they fail. Mary gets it right when she praises God in the Magnificat, saying that God 'puts forth his arm in strength and scatters the proud hearted'.

Thus, this is a much more powerful message than a passing winter festival when people exchange gifts and celebrate – and then get back to normal. This asks us to see the world as a place that is marked by much arrogance and exclusion - but where God still breaks through on a dark night with news of great joy. When church becomes too attached to power, when we think that we have to be able to control the agenda, we can be blind to the fact that God does not need our perceived success and learning in order to achieve great things. History has shown how God uses amazing little people and out of the way places. Today we celebrate a high point of our story, all of which reveals God's unstoppable work for our salvation.

Secondly, Jesus is born powerless. From Bethlehem onwards, everything that he does speaks of the power of weakness. He is foretold by John the Baptist who lives the life of a radical drop-out in the desert. Mary his mother does not understand the apparently crazy journey that she is asked to undertake where her own soul will be pierced with a sword. Joseph is asked to believe something that no right-minded person could take seriously. But this Christ child will bear witness to the power of grace, mercy and forgiveness to change the mess that we often make of our relationships and our world. He came, not to change a political system but to change human hearts. Overthrowing the Roman invaders in the Holy Land and replacing them with local rulers would not guarantee a wonderful country, if those leaders were not people of wisdom and humility. Similarly, the future of this island and this continent will not be secured merely by changing politicians or borders, unless we have leaders who call us all to a shared greatness and not merely to narrow victories over those labelled as enemies. If government is merely about economics and without inspiring community-building ideals, then we give tired answers to threadbare questions. In the creation of a just world, our greatest enemy lies in our own hearts if they have not been healed by forgiveness and mercy. A just country will not be achieved by changing the deckchairs on the Titanic – and deciding who sits on those fragile deckchairs. Christmas people will always challenge politicians to inspire young people with truth and not merely to sell self-serving political fairy tales.

Christmas does not offer us a sweet tinsel-wrapped story for escapists. It proclaims a daring vision of hope and a call to believe, to become involved in spreading that message of hope. As with Jesus, that subversive message will be unwelcome.

Thirdly, in the dark night, the angels tell the shepherds not to be afraid because they bring news of great joy. Those are core elements in Christian faith for every generation. We have versions of Christianity that tell us we need to be afraid, and they preach a message of terrible plots that we have to fight. It is true that, in every generation, original sin has driven people to do terrible things. But the message of Bethlehem says that Christ's followers should be people noted for their great joy, no matter what situation they face. And why should that be one of our core messages, why did Pope Francis write about the joy of the Gospel? Because Christmas tells us that grace is stronger than sin and that God is always quietly at work, even when we think that he is hidden. It is true that this is a time of crises in politics, in the environment and in the church. But the voice from heaven still tells us not to be afraid because we know a message of great joy for the whole world. If we want to know where God is speaking in the world today, we need to reject those who peddle fear and anger. Such messages do not lie at the heart of the story that Christmas wants to tell.

The Christmas story speaks of God breaking into the world in a powerless child and offering a message of joyful hope for the future. That is the message that has filled the hearts of Christ's followers for two thousand years. We will face many problems in 2023 as we struggle with the mess that unredeemed human nature has made of our society. Christmas does not offer us a sweet tinsel-wrapped story for escapists. It proclaims a daring vision of hope and a call to believe, to become involved in spreading that message of hope. As with Jesus, that subversive message will be unwelcome. That is why we have to build prayerful communities when the young can discover the divine dream for the world. We need one another if we are to face the cold winds of cynicism and rejection. Like Mary, Joseph and the shepherds, are we prepared to take this message seriously?If we do, we will give glory to God in the highest and bring peace to people of good will.

+ Donal McKeown


Together we can face whatever the future throws at us.
A Christmas message from Bishop Donal McKeown

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Francis Street, Derry
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