Wednesday, 24 December 2008

The Spirit of Hope

This morning’s front-page photograph by Daragh McSweeney/Provision in The Irish Times shows a stained-glass window in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Carrigavar, Co Cork

The following editoral is carried in The Irish Times this morning (Christmas Eve 2008):

The Spirit of Hope

A POPULAR story this Christmas season tells of a shopper picking up a charity packet of Christmas cards, each with a nativity scene, and being overheard saying: “They’re trying to bring religion into everything these days!” In sharp contrast, pulpits throughout the land will be filled tomorrow with priests and preachers reminding us of the need to recover “the real meaning of Christmas”.

The reality of course, lies somewhere in between. For, in a time of economic foreboding, the Nativity story poses real challenges both to those who would like to relegate religion to the realm of private opinion and those who think any secular celebrations debase the meaning of Christmas.

The Nativity is as brutal in its imagery as it is compelling in its contemporary relevance. It is a story about poverty, homelessness, marginalisation and the capricious abuse of political power. And yet it is also a story about the value of giving generously, giving freely and taking responsibility. The image in Saint Matthew’s Gospel of visiting wise men or kings who bring all their wealth and lay it before a lowly-born child is in sharp contrast to the brutal abuse of absolute power by a despotic Herod, who uses every unethical but legal means available to him to shore up his power and control. On the other hand, the wise men in their generosity, like the shepherds in their simplicity, joyfully accept responsibility for the news they hear and for the events around them. Unlike the self-interested Herod, they are ethical, realistic and responsible in their actions and response.

In religious terms, the Christmas story is good news because it is the story of God taking responsibility for the here-and-now and identifying with every one of us. Instead of walking away from the human condition, God in Christ identifies with the full panoply of human crises, not merely by intervening but by becoming human.

Christmas, therefore, is a story that is in sharp contrast to those politicians, financiers and captains of industry who refuse to accept responsibility for present-day problems. Christmas is the story of how God takes responsibility for the world and steps into it at the birth of Christ. Christmas is a story about God refusing to walk away and God showing the difference between legal decision-making and ethical action. It is a story that is relevant to all of us, whether we sent Christmas cards with a religious theme or simply sent ones that sought to bring cheer in this bleak midwinter.