24 December 2011

When all is not calm nor bright

The Irish Times in today’s edition [24 December 2011] carries the following lead editorial comment on page 17:

When all is not
calm nor bright

WHEN WE wrap our gifts in festive colours, and decorate our homes and workplaces with lights and tinsel, it is easy to think we have bundled our fears and despair away – at least for the next week or two. Our popular celebrations of Christmas become comfortable and comforting as we sing carols and try to convince ourselves that “all is calm, all is bright”. Yet all is not calm in our economy, nor is all bright for those who live in dark fear of poverty or what the future holds.

Our well-wrapped, warm and homely celebrations this season forget that the first Christmas was one filled with fear and dread. The Gospel story being read in most churches tomorrow morning is St Luke’s account of the first Christmas (Luke 2: 1-20). Immediately after the birth of the Christ Child in Bethlehem, the scene moves to a hillside where shepherds are working at night, in the dark and in the cold, easy prey to wolves, thieves and the cold weather, less valuable than the animals they tend. And the Gospel writers tell us that those poor shepherds are terrified when they see the angelic host.

The initial task of the angels is to calm those fears. Their first words to those frightened shepherds are not ones of call or command, but words to calm them: “Fear Not”. This Christmas time, when the world is a cold, frightening and uninviting place for many, the first task of the church must be to bring hope where there is fear, love where there is no peace, to give rather than receive. The angels’ call to the shepherds to “fear not” is not a platitude or an invitation to piety, but one that is linked with the promise of Good News, the promise that God’s plans for humanity and for creation are brighter than the darkness of their night: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2: 10).

But where is there good news for the homeless, the unemployed, the elderly, the parents of vulnerable children? Where is the hope of great joy for people around the world denied democracy and human rights, for those who live in poverty and under oppression? A thought-provoking slogan in Saint James’s Church, Piccadilly, a fashionable London church, proclaims: “Christ did not come so that we could have church and that more often. He came so we could have life and that more abundantly”. For many people this Christmas, their principal fear is about life, the apprehension that they do not have the abundances to face the future without fear.

In his poem Christmas, John Betjeman dismisses the commercialisation of Christmas and challenges us to return to the truth of the Christmas message:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all...
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

When, in Betjeman’s words, the “Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’ ”, we are called not only to hear the story of Christ’s birth, the story of a child born to a couple for whom “there was no place” in Bethlehem, but called too to ensure the words “Happy Christmas” are not hollow and meaningless.

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