25 December 2021
Inspiring the hopeless
and putting Christ at
the heart of Christmas
Saturday 25 December 2021: 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; Hebrews 1: 1-4; 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 – as I have done in previous years – that I should read an adaptation of the editorial published in The Irish Times yesterday, on Christmas Eve. It is a reminder of the message of Christmas, the message of the Incarnation, the message that God has come among us.
It is headed, ‘Inspiring the hopeless,’ and it reads:
In the opening lines of TS Eliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi, one of the three wise men recalls his visit many years earlier to the Christmas Crib and the Christ Child in Bethlehem:
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
Eliot’s poem recalls that first Christmas as a time of conflict and death, set in a severe climate. The old man recalls “the night-fires going out”, “the lack of shelters”, and “the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly”. It is a poem set in a hostile climate and a violent-ridden atmosphere, written in 1927, in the inter-war years, as a looming financial crisis would soon lead to the Wall Street collapse. It speaks more of death than of birth and is without any hint of the sentimentality found almost a generation later in Eliot’s poem The Cultivation of Christmas Trees (1954), the “accumulated memories of annual emotion … concentrated into a great joy”.
A sanitised story
This year, Christmas is without sentimentality or great joy for an accumulating number of people across the world. It is a Christmas marked by too many crises that are replacing joy with fear and hope with terror: the Christmas crises of Covid, climate change and conflict. Trócaire launched its Christmas appeal this year saying: “The climate crisis, along with Covid-19 and conflict, has resulted in 30 million people currently facing life-threatening food shortages”.
The interconnected nature of this triple-lock crisis was underlined by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney when he responded to the Russian veto of the Irish motion on climate change at the Security Council, saying, “It is telling that 80 per cent of UN peacekeepers are deployed in countries that are the most exposed to climate change … Where climate change is a factor in exacerbating instability and undermining peace and security, the Security Council should use the tools at its disposal to tackle it”.
Poverty, rather than problems of supply and distribution, explains why so many people in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America remain unvaccinated as the Covid-19 virus continues to mutate and spread. Poverty, climate change and conflict explain why so many migrants have been willing to risk their lives and the lives of their children in the English Channel or the borders of Belarus. Yet, governments with the responsibility and the resources to respond, continue to address the presenting problem rather than tackling its underlying causes.
The Christmas story has been sanitised in its telling and retelling over the centuries. It is set in a cold climate, at a time of oppression and discrimination, corruption and conflict, migration and mass murder. The Christ Child is born in Bethlehem because his parents have been forced to leave Nazareth; Herod’s horrid schemes become known to the visiting Magi and force the family to seek refuge in neighbouring Egypt. Even then, children were the innocent victims of the power games of capricious rulers and despots, unaware or unwilling to face the global consequences of their self-centred decision-making.
Comforting the afflicted
It is a story of rejection, discrimination and marginalisation, of violence without restraint, of poverty caused by the priorities of those who also had the power to change. The victims in the first Christmas story include a single mother and a homeless child. But, in that story, those who are awake to the potential the birth of a child has to change the world are simple shepherds and visitors from afar. As the American theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber says: “The birth of Jesus was not elegantly staged. It is how we experience life – messy, surprising, unexpected, imperfect”. With her innate irreverence, she continues to challenge all who would make Christianity too comfortable and too cosy at Christmas-time, saying, “People don’t leave Christianity because they stop believing in the teachings of Jesus. People leave Christianity because they believe in the teachings of Jesus so much, they can’t stomach being part of an institution that claims to be about that and clearly isn’t”.
In a time of crisis, marked by conflict, Covid and climate change, marked by the plight of refugees, migrants and the homeless, the Churches can put Christ back at the heart of Christmas not by worrying about declining churchgoing figures and finances, but by returning to the priorities of feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted, loving the outcast, forgiving the wrongdoer, inspiring the hopeless, and emphasising time and again Christ’s core message of loving one another. Then, in the words of TS Eliot,
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy …
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.
And so, may all we think, say and so be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
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.
Liturgical Colour: White, or Gold.
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.
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
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)
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:
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.
Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one
all things earthly and heavenly,
fill you with his joy and peace:
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.