And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord." [Luke 2:10-11]
Christmas, in many homes, is the highlight of the year. It can be a time to get together with family and friends, to share food and exchange gifts. For many children it is a time of great wonder and joy, and the most treasured memories of many adults come from the family Christmas experience of their childhood. It is a moment of great significance for our lives as Christians, where we come together to celebrate the joy of ‘God-with-us’ in the birth of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Christmas is also a time when we reflect on the Holy Family, a family whose love for each other and faith in God helped them to overcome great trials and suffering. This year we are conscious of the many homes across Ireland where pressures on family life have never been greater because of worries about debt, financial insecurity, unemployment and heavy workloads just to make ends meet. All of these can easily become sources of tension and conflict, putting new strains on relationships within the home, even on otherwise stable relationships between parents. It is no coincidence that from the very beginning of the current economic crisis organisations such as ACCORD have reported significant increases in the number of couples coming to them for help. We would encourage any couple, experiencing pain or difficulties in their relationship at this time, to avail of the safe and confidential space offered by organisations such as ACCORD, where they can share their experiences with people who understand the joys and challenges of marriage. As pressures on families increase, it is important that all couples take time to think about how much of themselves and their time they give to nurturing their relationship, which is at the heart of family life.
In the Gospel of St. Matthew (2:2-12) we read of the journey of the Magi to present their gifts to the baby Jesus. These gifts had a special significance, acknowledging the identity and future mission of Jesus. In these financially straightened times it is important to ask how much meaning is really attached to some of the gifts we give to each other at Christmas today? An over-emphasis on the material aspect of giving can mean those in our society who are struggling financially experience a crisis of self-esteem, feeling that they have little to give to others and that the expectations of children in particular cannot be met. In reality, however, the greatest gift we can give is the gift of our time and attention. Impersonal, material gifts will soon be forgotten, but time spent with a person, showing that you value and care for them, means so much more and will leave them with memories to value forever.
This, after all, is very nature of the gift given to us in the incarnation of the Son of God at Christmas. In the words of the famous Christmas hymn, O Holy Night, we celebrate the ‘The King of Kings, lay thus in lowly manger; in all our trials born to be our friend’. This Christmas we encourage all to take the time to stop and reflect: are we so busy rushing around buying presents, stocking up on food and decorating our houses, that we don’t have time to actually be present for those who need us? We also ask is there more each of us could do to reflect the original simplicity of the Christmas scene by wasting less food, packaging and energy?
We remember in a particular way this year all those who are suffering as a result of the crisis in East Africa. This hunger could be prevented through a fairer distribution of the world’s resources.
While it is good to celebrate with family and friends, it is important to consider how our behaviour as consumers impacts on the lives of people in the developing world. There are small changes we can all make on an individual basis, such as opting for Fair Trade products, that will help to make a difference. Organisations such as Trócaire, working to improve the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable people throughout the world, offer the opportunity for us to support their work at Christmas time through the purchase of ‘global gifts’. Instead of giving unnecessary items to family and friends we can, in their name, give the gift of hope to a family in the developing world, helping them to feed themselves, protect their health and educate their children.
As Bishops we recognise that recent years in the Church in Ireland have been especially difficult. We are deeply sorry that so many people have felt hurt, betrayed and shaken in their faith. This is especially true for the victims of child abuse in the Church, for whom no expression of regret could ever suffice. As 2011 draws to a close, we renew our commitment to work to address the failings of the past in truth, justice and humility.
People sometimes express regret that the true meaning of Christmas has been lost amidst the consumerism and excess so often associated with it. Whatever our circumstances, the true meaning of Christmas is always available to us in reflection and prayer on the Christmas story itself. We take this opportunity to thank those in radio, television, printed media and new media who give space and resources at this time of year to making the Christmas story known in a reflective and respectful way. We thank those of other religious traditions and none who join us in celebrating the spirit of peace and goodwill to all heralded by the Angels on that first Christmas night. As Bishops, we make a particular appeal to members of our own Church, especially those who have become alienated or distant from regular participation in Mass, to rediscover the hope and strength that comes from the celebration of the Christmas story in their parish community gathered for the Eucharist.
Next June we will celebrate the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, with the theme ‘The Eucharist – Communion with Christ and with One Another’. This event and the months leading up to it offer an opportunity for renewal of our faith and strengthening of our hope. As we face into the many challenges that lie ahead for the Church and for our country we recall that our greatest hope is in our communion with Christ and with one another in prayer, in reflection on God’s Word, in participation in the Eucharist and in our shared mission to bring the Good News to the world. This Good News, as the Christmas story reminds us, is ‘news of great joy that will be for all people’ (Lk 2:10). Our prayer is that this joy will touch the hearts of all this Christmas and strengthen our hope in challenging times.