I was struck by a headline on a national newspaper recently that read, “A nation yearns for meaning at Christmas”. It noted that 86% of Irish people, questioned in a survey, believe that Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Christ, has become too commercial, while at the same time it found that the amount spent commercially this Christmas has gone way beyond previous years. Modern Ireland has an identity crisis about how it wishes to understand Christmas. There are those who feel that Christ has long since been marginal in people’s idea of Christmas and are resigned to that situation. However, this is not the complete picture. Alongside all the commercialisation, Christmas is a time for great generosity. It is a time that brings out the best in us. Families come together. The lonely are remembered. Huge generosity was given this Christmas to St. Vincent de Paul Christmas collection.
Paradoxically, much of what is now celebrated commercially draws heavily from elements that we have inherited from the Christian tradition. The Christian idea of the celebration of the birth of Christ was never just about what happens in Church. Christmas was always also about a vision of human relations in which people care and share, in which people rejoice in the experience of goodness, in which people gather and unite, in which children celebrate simple joys. The fundamentals of what Christmas really means were never just created in Hollywood. They have deeper roots that still endure. Christmas is also a time in which people come to Church. A warm welcome awaits everyone who gathers to remember that Jesus is the reason for the season. Believers come to celebrate the mystery of the incarnation of the son of God. Others find that the simplicity of the Christian mystery rekindles aspects of their faith that throughout the year they have not lost but may never have had occasion to reflect on due to the time pressures in which people live today.
Some of course will celebrate Christmas in their own way without any reference to God and some may even celebrate Christmas with the intention of telling God he has no place in their lives. Some will actively try to remove public mention of Jesus at Christmas as if the story of his birth constituted a public endangerment.
Some practicing Christians will betray the real Christmas by the way they live. The Church as an institution hosts wonderful charitable organisations that really blossom at Christmas, yet it also has within its history a shameful failure to protect children and the vulnerable. Many of those who celebrate Christmas without God may do so because they have a false notion of God. Many of those who celebrate with all the frills of religion may also be celebrating the wrong God. The Gospel reading for Christmas begins with a series of historical details, about who was Emperor and who was governor and how Mary and Joseph were to be registered as citizens. Why is this so? The evangelist wishes it to be noted that the great mystery of the birth of the Son of God took place within real history.
God intervened in human history and human history is changed. Our notion of God has also changed. In Jesus Christ, God has become present in our world in a different way. Our God is not a distant God in Heaven. God chose to be present in human history not just at the birth of Christ but also in our own day. Among my favourite biblical figures, there are the two men in white garments who appear after Jesus is lifted up to Heaven at his ascension.
They ask the disciples why they are looking up to Heaven to find their God. The Christian message is that God is present in human history and a God who seems to be removed from what is happening in our world would not be the Christian God. God is certainly not to be identified just with this world. God is transcendent. He is the only one who can definitively draw us out of and above human compromise. It is that same God who is also present in our world.
How do we identify that presence? When we begin to understand that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is the God of love we begin to understand He is present in the world where genuine love springs up. If God is present where genuine love springs up, He must also be present calling us to respond to those who do not experience love.
The God of love is present reminding us to be there where men, women and children of our times become excluded and marginalised. God is present at Christmas in the measure in which we reach out to those whom our society fails to provide with the experience of love. Despite our affluence, our cities conceal the faces of people of many who are left feeling that they do not belong. We hear daily of homelessness, immigration, poor education and inadequate health care as problems that scar our society. Homelessness, immigration, poor education and poor health care are simply concepts. We can talk and debate about concepts and the pros and cons of our social and political responses. The Christmas message must draw us beyond just discussing concepts and spinning statistics, towards encountering people. We are talking about people who stand this night on the edges of our streets and housing estates. They are part of our urban landscape. We know that they are there, but do we really know them personally?
God is present with them. God is present to us through them. We meet God in them. Yes, God is really present on our streets this Christmas, but do we recognise him? Further, we must ask: do the marginalised recognise Jesus in us? Do we as believers witness to others that our God, the Wonder Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father and Prince of Peace appears in all humility and challenges us to reach out to the humble. The mystery of Christmas challenges us. The mystery of Christmas is the mystery of our God who in the Christ Child, became small and humble to be with us and change us and open us to his greatness through allowing us to mirror his love. Only in that God do Christians find its true meaning. Let us celebrate Christmas in that spirit, today, tomorrow and for the year to come.