Homily for the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord in Year A 2016 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta 25 December 2016
Dear brothers and sisters,
It is with great joy and gratitude that I celebrate with you my first Christmas as your bishop. I’d like to warmly thank you for making me feel welcome and at home in this vibrant and growing diocese. Your acceptance, love and support truly sustain me in my ministry and help me launch into the deep.
In the mystery of Christmas, God reveals himself in the way that surprises and challenges us. Not only did he embrace our human condition fully, he also identified with the most vulnerable, the most rejected and the most forgotten among us. The birth of Jesus as a homeless, poor and unwelcomed person was indicative of a God who assumed the lowliest, the most feared and dreaded of human conditions in order to show us his expansive unconditional love and to call us to live that same unlimited and unconditional love.
Usually, the nativity scenes set up around Christmas time are represented with traditional characters like Mary, Joseph, the magi and the animals. Last year, however, a very unusual nativity scene was set up. Everything about this crib speaks of the plight of refugees. A refugee tent replaces the manger; two statues of grieving parents with tears streaming down their faces replace Joseph and Mary. For baby Jesus, there is the most confronting image: a doll model of that Syrian boy who drowned lying face down on a beach in Turkey.
It seemed like a very unconventional crib. However, the lesson should not be lost in the story of Christmas which we at times sentimentalise and sanitise through layers of embellishments. The lesson is this: God loves us so much that he enters fully into the depths of our pain and suffering. Christmas is about the God who disregards his exalted status in order to become the most vulnerable, the most fragile and the most rejected among us.
Saint Paul says beautifully in his letter to the Philippians. Christ humbled himself by taking the form of a servant, and being found in our human condition, he humbled himself even more by accepting death on the cross. Christmas is the beginning of a downward journey into the depths of human existence. No dilemma unlived; no pain untouched; no despair unknown. Christmas is about the love that crosses boundaries, that dares to give all away, that commits God to a human journey with us and for us in our most vulnerable state.
But Christmas offers us not only warm consolation and reassurance of being loved and accepted. It also challenges us in a way that raises our humanity to a new level. The challenge is that if God has identified with the weakest and the most despised among us, then can we not engage with the world that he loves? Can we not be channels of the same Emmanuel who is in the poor, the homeless, the refugee, the outcast and the leper of today?
As God abandoned his own security in order to be with us, so must we have the courage to leave our comfort zones and discover the presence, the beauty, the love of God in unfamiliar or even disordered places, in the margins and the shadows of life. If Jesus was born in a manger and surrounded by lowly people, then we must discover him again in the unlikely situations and people.
This year has been a difficult year for many of us to see the face of God and to journey towards the future with hope. The crisis in the Middle East, the threat of terrorism at home, the plight of asylum seekers, the hopelessness of our indigenous youth, the daily struggle of those left behind, the personal and family tragedies…. are just a few things that test our hope.
The Royal Commission, too, has been a lightning rod that struck at the heart of our faith in the Church. It has never been so tough to be a Catholic. But then, we need to remember that the tough times can be the blessed times. What the Church needs is not a return to the heights of imperial power in what was known as Christendom. In the light of the God who identified with the poor, powerless, rejected, persecuted and condemned, the Church too needs to do what Pope Francis challenges us: go to the periphery, to be the presence of God for the poor and marginalised. We must be less about a leadership of power, control and clericalism but more of a humble service. We must be more of an oasis for the weary and downtrodden. We must be more of an encounter of radical love, inclusiveness and solidarity.
Tonight we rejoice at the birth of the Emmanuel. Like the people who walked in darkness, we have too have seen a great light. The fact that God is with us makes everything else pale into insignificance. Let us rejoice but let us also live the spirit of Christmas. God comes to us and teaches us how we can come to him via our going out to each other. Let us seek to meet Christ and serve him in the least of our brothers and sisters. Then, we will experience the true joy which comes from him who is our source of peace and love.
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