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Homily - Christmas Day - Bishop McKeown

Friday, 25 December 2020 

We have at last arrived at Christmas Day. It will be a strange time without many of the feel-good elements which brighten the darkest months of the year. It will be a lonely time for many families. For people of faith, these strange times offer an opportunity to cope without many of the elaborate frills and be face to face with the simple reality of a baby born in Bethlehem. What does the birth of Jesus say to our current situation?

Firstly, Christmas is about little people in little places. Mary and Joseph are of no major importance to the rich and powerful, then or now. They are just faces in the crowd. When it comes to questions of politics and influence, they are of no significance. But Christmas tells the little ones of today that God comes in little things and strange places. The Christmas stories tell of a God who is first recognised by the poorest. The shepherds had none of the social or religious sophistication that would have given them status or made them a good choice for the angels' message. The angel appears to them in the place where they work, cold and exposed on hillsides with sheep. God is announced to them in the midst of their messy daily lives.

Jesus is not just Emmanuel, God-with-us in a general sense of taking on human nature. Jesus is with us when we feel most unimportant and forgotten, with little recognition or status. Bring to him those parts of your life where you feel most unimportant or unattractive. Let him take up residence there and bring beauty where you think that all is lost or just a source of embarrassment. It is good news for children if they can believe in God who is to be found in little places and not just in big boxes.

Secondly, it was very inconvenient for Mary and Joseph to have to travel up to Bethlehem. It was very inconvenient for the shepherds to have to come down from the hillsides because an angel had told them to look for a baby in the manger. But the inconvenient, the unwelcome, the extra mile can be the place where God is hidden. Many people are very upset by the restrictions that we have to put up with. But God is often hidden in the unwelcome event or person. We would rather that life stayed predictable. We all want to be in charge. The Covid crisis has shown us that we are not masters of the universe. But the baby of Bethlehem reassures us that God is in charge and hidden in every inconvenient time and place. The angels tell the shepherds not to be afraid. Our greatest enemies are those who spread fear. It may be those who have a message of gloom about the virus. It may be those in church circles who keep telling us to be afraid of those tell us to be afraid of the virus. Fear-mongers are rarely people of deep faith. A frightened `or frightening faith is not a Christmas faith. Parents, reassure children that God is in control even when we are angry that circumstances and people have let us down. Help them walk with hope in the power of goodness and grace - and to face inconvenience with more than just anger or with their finger crossed.

Thirdly, Jesus comes into the world in Bethlehem and there is no room for him. The Gospel tells us that even Bethlehem was not safe for him and that he had to flee in order to avoid being killed. The uncomfortable message is that he is with those for whom there is no room. The innkeepers closed to their doors to the unwelcome visitors who were looking for accommodation. In every generation there is a temptation to close the door to those who don't fit in or measure up to our standards of behaviour or holiness. Even in Jesus' adult life, he was revealed in his dealings with cripples and lepers, sinners and foreigners. The Pharisees thought that laws alone would keep people on the straight and narrow. But laws without love are heartless. Truth spoken without love is just a gong booming or a cymbal clashing, as St Paul says. If we are to be followers of Jesus' ways, we all have to ask where we need to make room for those who don't fit into the categories that make us feel comfortable. The baby of Bethlehem invites us not to be afraid of the outsider but to make room for them.

Thus, the Christmas Jesus does not offer spiritual baubles – shiny and attractive but without any content. This Christmas, above all years, we need to be nourished with spiritual substance and not merely with hollow distractions. We will be surrounded by many feel-good pieces of entertainment because, rightly, Christmas invites us to celebrate in the face of winter and of problems. But our celebrations are not built merely on the foundation of 'ho-ho-ho' but on a trust that the God of the universe is hidden in little ones and that light is able to shine out in darkness. Our feast of Jesus' birth calls us to venerate the beauty of vulnerable human life. If we desire to be masters of life at its beginning, middle and end, if – like Herod - we see life as less important than our agenda, we become enemies of humankind, not its friends. Those who cannot see the beauty of little things soon tire of the big things. Those who cannot love God in the small, hidden places will damage their own capacity to love and be loved. Christmas is seen as a time for celebrating with children and celebrating the child in each of us. But this feast is really a time for adults to deal with issues of life, fear, illness, homelessness and abuses of power. I wish you all a chance to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas where you can hear the words 'Do not be afraid' and 'Glory to God in the highest and peace to people of good will.' That is a Christmas gift that will bless us all long into 2021, whatever the New Year holds.

+ Donal McKeown

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