24 December 2021
‘Do not be afraid; for see –
I am bringing you good news
of great joy for all the people’
Christmas Night, Friday 24 December:
6 p.m., Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry
8 p.m., Castletown Church, Co Limerick
The Christmas Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)
Readings: Isaiah 9: 2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-14
May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
On the first Christmas night, the angels announce to the frightened shepherds in the fields: ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’ (Luke 2: 10).
In a fearful and fretful world facing so many crises, where are people going to find ‘good news of great joy for all people’ this night?
Instead of preaching a sermon this Christmas night, I thought – as I have done in previous years – that I should read an adaptation of the editorial published in The Irish Times this morning to mark 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.
Luke 2: 1-14 (NRSVA):
1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
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.
who made this most holy night
to shine with the brightness of your one true light:
Bring us, who have known the revelation
of that light on earth,
to see the radiance of your heavenly glory;
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,
in this night you have made known to us again
the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ:
Confirm our faith and fix our eyes on him
until the day dawns
and Christ the Morning Star rises in our hearts.
To him be glory both now and for ever.
Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one
all things earthly and heavenly,
fill you with his joy and peace:
174, O little town of Bethlehem (CD 11)
160, Hark! the herald angels sing (CD 9)
182, Silent night, holy night (CD 11)
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.