24 December 2010

The story of Christmas

The Nativity depicted in a stained-glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

This morning’s edition of The Irish Times carries the following main editorial comment:

The story of Christmas

THE MAIN Christian Churches share a common lectionary, and so share the same Scripture readings in church, week by week. Since the end of November, Christians around the world have been preparing for Christmas throughout Advent with readings from the first Gospel, according to Saint Matthew.

Saint Matthew’s account of the first Christmas is unique. There is no Christmas story in the Gospels according to Saint Mark and Saint John. And, unlike Saint Luke, whose Nativity account is being read in churches tomorrow, Saint Matthew has no Annunciation, no Visitation, no census that forces Joseph and Mary to move from Nazareth, and no shepherds on wintry hills who hear the angels singing. Saint Matthew has the story of the Magi, wise men who visit from the East, but his narrative lacks the romance found in Saint Luke’s account. Matthew’s story-telling is both brutal and direct: he tells of Herod’s slaughter of innocent children and of the forced exile of a young couple and their infant who seek refuge in Egypt.

Matthew makes a silent hero of Joseph. Like his Old Testament counterpart, the Joseph of Saint Matthew’s Gospel is a dreamer who goes into exile in Egypt. At first reading, he appears to have only a walk-on part – not the sort of role children vie for in school nativity plays. Joseph has no words to say; he remains silent throughout the first Gospel. But Joseph is no idle dreamer: he is both a dreamer and a doer. He dreams, he hears, he reflects ... and he acts. He is a man of vision and a man of action.

In a world that is sometimes brutal and harsh, it is appropriate to remember this Christmas that the cold and the snow isolate the elderly and the vulnerable; that the present economic crisis poses its greatest threats to young mothers and children living in poverty; that this country is in danger of becoming a place that is cold and unwelcoming to those forced into exile or seeking refuge.

Christina Rossetti’s well-loved carol In the Bleak Midwinter is appropriate in this bleak, snow-blanketed island this Christmas:

In the bleak mid-winter
frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron,
water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
snow on snow,
in the bleak mid-winter
long ago.

Her carol reminds us that Christmas is less about what we can buy and hope to be given, and more about love incarnate:

What can I give him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give him,
give my heart.

The Joseph of Saint Matthew’s Gospel acts not out of self-interest but in the interests of his wife and her child. His dreams and his actions save the day. In this snow-covered land, even if winter is made more bleak by our economic crisis, we should celebrate that we continue to have dreamers who dream and whose visions may lead to action and take us out of our plight. It is they who keep alive the promise and the hope of a bright future for all, particularly for the young, the unemployed, the elderly, the vulnerable and the marginalised.

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