2020 has been a tough year. For months on end we have been listening out for the figures: how many new cases today? How many in ICU? How many deaths? Every one of those figures stands for lives frustrated, threatened, perhaps changed definitively.
As we approach Christmas we pray for those who have died in the past year and our hearts go out to the bereaved. One of the ancient philosophers wrote: ‘be kind with everyone you meet today; you do not know what battles they are fighting’. So many of us are dealing with heightened levels of anxiety stemming from loneliness or other hardships made worse by the effects of lockdown. There are those among us whose livelihoods have been seriously threatened by the pandemic. Family gatherings will be different this Christmas and many people will be missing loved ones from the celebration. This year is especially hard for those who can’t come home for Christmas.
Even as we acknowledge all of this sadness we Christians remember that the heart of Christmas is Emmanuel, God with us. God is with us. Before he was born in her body, the Christ was born in Mary’s heart. He can be, he will be and he is born again in the heart of every Christian even in the midst of sadness and sorrow. That is the heart of Christmas. No matter what, our God is with us and that is the source of our joy.
For generations, Irish families have put a light in the window to invite Jesus, Mary and Joseph into their homes for Christmas. I invite everybody to bring Christ into their home with family prayer. Light a candle near your crib and gather round it for a moment of prayer. Somebody could read the Gospel from Luke chapter 2 and sing a carol or you could simply say the Hail Mary together asking God’s blessing on everyone in the house and for those who feel isolated, vulnerable or particularly impacted by the pandemic.
Gathering around the dinner table this Christmas I encourage you to remember all the people who have ensured that throughout this pandemic, we have had access to food; the farmers, food producers, delivery drivers and the staff who have worked in all of our local shops and stores.
When God first appeared in human form it was as part of a family who were out of home, at least temporarily. They were on the brink of being driven from their homeland by political persecution and forced to seek refuge in a foreign country. In the Christmas story we meet a Jesus, Mary and Joseph who were homeless, refugees and asylum seekers. It was not by accident that God identified with the marginalised. At the end of all our lives he will remind us of this when he will say to us: ‘in so far as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters you did it to me.’
One of the blessings of the Covid times has been that we’ve seen so many people step forward and give of their time and energy to help the community, neighbours and strangers alike. And now with Christmas coming so many people are thinking of others more than themselves; people are planning to cook dinners for their neighbours and are seeking ways to be with people who are alone. St Vincent de Paul and other community groups are working very hard to reach out to people in need. Trócaire, as well as many other agencies supported by you, are reaching out to help people in regions still ravaged by war and famine. In this past year their fundraising campaigns have been frustrated by the Covid pandemic. It is important that we remember them, if we can, at Christmas.
This Christmas take time to notice the acts of generosity and kindness in your community. There are a multitude of people engaged in this generosity – they are the messengers of hope and like the host of heavenly angels on the first Christmas night they proclaim that Christ is among us. When the Word became flesh two thousand years ago, it was God’s outrageous effort to be born among us and in our hearts. Jesus longs to be a light in the heart of each one of us. He knows about our darkness and wants to shine in our lives. My prayer is that we will let him into our hearts in a new way this Christmas. When we do he will shine in our own darkness and be a light for the world around us.
It is with a sense of great hope that we welcome the vaccines that over the coming months will bring an end to these dark days of pandemic. In a real way, with patience and prudence, may we stay safe and keep each other healthy and well. We also welcome the new light that slowly will manifest to much brighter days ahead. May we all be blessed with great hope and health throughout 2021.