Friday, 25 December 2020

The first Christmas story is
a lived reality that offers
hope in the face of despair

The Christmas crib outside Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Friday 25 December: Christmas Day,

9.30 a.m., Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

11 a.m., Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick

The Christmas Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)

Readings: Isaiah 52: 7-10; Psalm 98; John 1: 1-14, 15-18

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Instead of preaching a sermon this Christmas morning, I thought I should read an adaptation of the editorial published in The Irish Times yesterday, on Christmas Eve, which quotes from this morning’s Gospel reading:

He’s making a list,
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town


If Santa Claus was making a list after his round of visits last year, then the child within everyone, everywhere, must feel we were all put on the ‘naughty list’ for some unfathomable reason. Who, with foresight or 20/20 vision, would have asked for the year we have had or the legacy it is going to leave us with?

Apart from their deep religious significance, there is an underlying psychological reason for celebrating festivals like Chanukkah and Christmas at this time of the year. As darkness envelops us in these cold days, we all seek ways to ritualise in a sacred way our hope for light and our belief that brighter days lie ahead.

Because this has been a dark and dismal year for us – as individuals, as families, and as society – the bright promise of the Christmas message is needed more than ever. And so, when people express their sadness at losing the opportunities to celebrate a traditional Christmas this year, they are articulating a deep need to find flickers of hope at the end of a year when so many lights seem to have flickered and then gone out.

In that sadness, they are not to be dismissed as moaners falling back on old certainties in times of uncertainty and doubt; instead, they are reaching into the deep longings of society that are best expressed when they are ritualised and sacralised.

Yet, the original Christmas story answers the many questions of those who fear they are losing the opportunity to celebrate a ‘real Christmas’ this year.

For families unable to come together because of travel restrictions, it is worth recalling that Joseph and the pregnant Mary were forced by officials to leave Nazareth and their families in Galilee. The first Christmas is a story of separation.

For people worried about isolation and not being able to visit the homes of friends and family, it is worth remembering that Joseph and Mary could find no room at the inn in Bethlehem. The first Christmas is a story of isolation.

For anyone worried about the lost opportunity to buy, wrap or share presents, it is good to recall that the shepherds in the fields only brought their own humility and love to the new-born child. The first Christmas is a story about gifts that are beyond price.

For all who are appalled by the capricious approaches to the virus on the part of the Trump administration and many other governments, it is shocking too to read of Herod’s capricious plans to wipe out a whole generation to prop up his own rule. The first Christmas is a statement that corruption and the abuse of power do not have the last word.

For churchgoers anxious about getting to the church of their choice on this day of all days, their true worship may be enriched by recalling that after the shepherds’ visit, ‘Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart’ (Luke 2: 19). The first Christmas is a reminder that true worship is not measured by the numbers of those present but by the intentions in their hearts.

For parents and grandparents upset that they are not going to see children or grandchildren, there is a comforting tradition about the ageing Simeon who welcomed Mary, Joseph and the new-born Christ Child in the Temple: he was blind because of advancing years, yet he could see the future blessings this couple and this child promised. The first Christmas is a reminder that true love spans the generations and does not depend on physical sight to be seen and expressed.

For frontline workers, all in hospitals and care centres who hope for a miracle cure to end this pandemic, there is a reminder that research, science and medicine are gifts brought to the crib in the form of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The first Christmas is a story of healing and wholeness.

For families concerned about emigrant and exiled family members, they may find parallels with the family that was forced by circumstance rather than by choice to flee into Egypt. The first Christmas is a reminder that we must find hope in unexpected places.

For homeless families, for refugees, for asylum seekers, for all in direct provision, for everyone who has lost their job, the starkness of the first Christmas story is a lived reality, and yet it offers hope in the face of despair.

And, for all who ask where God is in the midst of our present crises, Christmas offers the deep truth that God is found in birth, in new life and in the simple, unconditional love that a new-born child offers. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1: 4).

And so, may all we think, say and so be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Christmas crib in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 1: 1-14 (NRSVA):

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1: 5) … the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child by the Victorian sculptor Mary Grant at the West Door of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: White, or Gold.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

Almighty God
you have given us your only-begotten Son
to take our nature upon him
and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin:
Grant that we, who have been born again
and made your children by adoption and grace,
may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
and his name shall be called the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 6)

Preface:

You have given Jesus Christ your only Son
to be born of the Virgin Mary,
and through him you have given us power
to become the children of God:

Blessing:

Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one
all things earthly and heavenly,
fill you with his joy and peace:

The Post Communion Prayer:

God our Father,
whose Word has come among us
in the Holy Child of Bethlehem:
May the light of faith illumine our hearts
and shine in our words and deeds;
through him who is Christ the Lord.

Hymns:

177, Once in royal David’s city (CD 11)
184, Unto us is born a Son (CD 11)
172, O come, all ye faithful (CD 10)



Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

This sermon was planned for celebrations of the Christmas Eucharist. But, on the advice of the Bishop, because of the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, all public Christmas services have been cancelled throughout the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe. Instead, this sermon was shared at a celebration of the Christmas Eucharist in Askeaton.

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