I find it always hard to preach over the Christmas season.
The difficult lies with finding something new to say about these events, some fresh theme to capture our imagination and lead us to deeper reflection on what we are about here, what we are really celebrating. How much more difficult when our Christmas liturgies have been severely limited because of the coronavirus pandemic. But rather than gazing at the crib scene and trying to conjure up some escapist homily that ignores the realities of our present global situation, I want to focus on these global realities, but look at them through the lens of our Christmas story, to try to catch some understanding of what God might be saying to us at this time.
In this light, I want to reflect with you on three main themes that resonate with me during this coronavirus crisis.
Firstly, we see in Jesus at the crib, the refugee, the nomad. He is here in Bethlehem, far away from his parents’ home town, because of some impersonal government decree that has forced him and his parents to leave their home and travel far away. He is in a manger, not because there is no room at the inn, but because his parents are poor and strangers in that town. Do you not think that some wealthy and powerful visitor would have been able to bribe or coerce the inn owner to find them a bed for the night? Later on, as we know, the Holy Family will be forced to flee away from their homeland, Israel, and take refuge in a foreign country, Egypt, because the government of the day is seeking to destroy the new born child, all due to the king’s paranoia and hatred. They will have to find some where to live and some means to pay for their livelihood. Still later on, Jesus will tell a would-be disciple, “I have no place to lay my head.” In other words, if you think being my disciple will be a walk in the park, think again, my friend, think long and hard!! If we feel we are suffering serious hardship because we are deprived of a place to come and worship due to the coronavirus, and we are not allowed to gather with family or friends this Christmas for the same reason, take a good hard look at the manger scene and think again, my friend. And have a thought as to how to reach out to the migrant and refugee in our society and around the world, still facing the same trial as the infant Jesus.
Secondly, we see Mary, the mother, the survivor. We know that she has had the most uncomfortable of journeys to this manger in Bethlehem, carrying within her her unborn child. We can only imagine the inconvenience of giving birth, not in some sanitized, ultra-modern and efficient hospital, with a group of experienced and skilled health-care workers, but in some insanitary dwelling, with the only cot or cradle an animal’s feeding trough, and surrounded by all kinds of health hazards. We know that soon, she will be obliged to go on another uncomfortable journey, fleeing for her life. Yet look on her, so calm, so serene, so joyful.
How does she do it?
Because she carries in her arms the child Jesus, the Son of God, and always, always, no matter what the circumstances, she is able to look upon him and cry out, “My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in my Savior.” What is her secret? She looks at the trials that are all round her through her son, Jesus, she doesn’t look at Jesus through the trials, which is what we, myself included, tend to do. We look at the latest modelling of potential figures for the virus, and the possibility of a vaccine still far away in the future for ordinary people like us, and we panic, we are terrified of being in the grip of forces beyond our control, and our faith in God dwindles away. We need to take our example from Mary, that extraordinary ordinary woman, and look steadily at Jesus, and know we are safe in his hands, he has the control of the world, and all its evil and uncertainty, and he has pledged to be with us always, even to the end of the ages. So we can relax, surrender ourselves into his hands and trust to him to bring us through whatever trials we may face. And he will, Because he already has, many times, and he will face all the most perilous circumstances anyone could face in the course of his short life on earth, and he will triumph over them in his death and resurrection.
So relax. Jesus has it all, and you as well, in his hands. Jesus has already faced more, much more than you and I will ever face. He has been there, he has overcome, and he says to us:
“Be of good cheer, in this world you will have many troubles, but don’t be afraid, I have overcome the world.”John 16
St John, in one of his letters, will underline the point: “This is what overcomes the world, our faith” our faith in Jesus, in his death and resurrection. Do you have this kind of faith, brothers and sisters, do I?
If so, what have we to worry about?
And thirdly, we see Joseph, the silent one, the strong one. I talked about him last Sunday, and mentioned that Pope Francis has designated this coming year as the Year of Joseph. I spoke about how Joseph speaks not a single word in the gospels, but he simply shows up and does what he is supposed to do, as a godly man, a godly husband and a godly foster father. The rest he leaves up to God. He knows that God will take care of him and his family, but that he has his part to play, and true wisdom and peace comes from understanding what only God can do, and what is the small part that I am called upon to do. I am not called to be the Savior of myself, or my family, or my community, or my work place, or my nation, or the world. That task has already been given away, to Jesus, and he has already done, and is doing, a fabulous job of it. My task is to carry out the ordinary duties of my state in life, as a worker, or parent or spouse or grand-parent, or whatever.
Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel:
“My yoke over you is easy, the burden I place on your shoulders is light.”Matthew 11:28
Do we believe that, brothers and sisters? Or do we think that we have all the burden of the world on our shoulders? And if we believe that, why is that? Who has fed us the lie that it is all down to us, so we can never for a moment allow ourselves to relax and enjoy ourselves, just in case something terrible goes wrong and disaster falls upon us and our families and loved ones? Yes, I have to take prudent measures to protect myself and my family during the pandemic, but I must not allow myself to be swept along on the wave of terrible fear and anxiety, and check and double-check that I have done absolutely everything I can to ensure that my loved ones are totally and always safe. Never going to happen, folks, there is already a new variant of the virus headed our way, as you know, so nothing in this life is ever certain, no happiness or disaster. St Augustine said that, a long long time ago, we simply show up, do what we are supposed to do and leave the rest to God.
In the gospel story of Martha and Mary, Martha worried herself into a right state, fretting and agitating over making sure everything is perfect for her visitor, Jesus. Jesus just wanted to sit and spend time with her and her sister, Mary, and so he told Martha, “Martha, Martha, you worry and fret over so many things. Right now, only this one thing is necessary, and Mary has chosen the better part.” Come on, sit down with me, relax, let us share together, trust me that I have everything covered.
So these are just three reflections taken from the Christmas story, and I am choosing to look at our present world and the coronavirus through the lens of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and not the other way round.
That is the secret to having a really Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Whatever comes.