The most awful tragedy known to me personally took place last week. At least it felt like it. I had my mobile ‘phone stolen. A tragedy because being such an important person I imagined the world would end if I didn’t have immediate contact with people or they with me. It was a salutary lesson to wake up the following morning and to realise that the world hadn’t stopped because I didn’t have a mobile phone.
Modern technology is great; it has its place and we have come to rely on it a huge amount. A visit to the web-site “friends reunited” can keep you up to speed with contemporaries from school or college days; certainly by typing a name in a search engine I have re-established contact with a number of people I had lost contact with. I suppose we always had pen-pals; though now it seems common-place to have friendships with people one does not physically meet!
Such clever technology has its evil side too and occasionally we are reminded of the way such contact can be abused – particularly when you can’t physically ‘see the person’ with whom one is, so to speak, talking. Chat rooms can be sinister places. Over the internet even I could try and pass myself off as tall, dark, slim, young and handsome!
After the initial bout of frustration of having my phone stolen I was very quickly told my a friend to not be so stupid. Think of the people you have visited these past few days, he said, and put things in perspective. I thought…… an elderly lady who is facing the first Christmas without her husband of 46 years with whom she said her prayers every single night.
Then I thought of someone I had visited in hospital who was awaiting a biopsy result today; someone in a Nursing Home whose advanced state of Alzheimer’s means she doesn’t sadly know whether it’s Christmas or Easter. And there have been the usual desperate callers to the Vicarage on a number of occasions. Was losing my mobile telephone really the end of the world?
No. But I, like perhaps some of you, can get my priorities wrong; that is to say, we put our own needs first, over and above the real and pressing needs of the world and/or community around us.
Each year Christmas proves to be a double-sided coin for many people. On the one hand the joy and the happiness which rightly belongs to such a great festival; and on the other hand the real pain, anxiety and despair which so many suffer; some very acutely and, it seems, un-necessarily. The pain of a first Christmas without loved ones… forthcoming surgery… unwanted retirement… redundancy… on-going poverty and lack of any real quality of life... People living with AIDS and HIV. These are some of the many problems which seem to beset us no matter how hard we try or how often we pray. And more shocking is the way we take most of this for granted now. Where is God in all of that, some say. God knew what he was doing when he became human; it showed he didn’t want to distance himself from suffering humanity but to stand with it, by it and in it. That’s what the Cross teaches us. Where is God? He’s in the mess. He’s in the pain.
But has God really made a difference? There are those who would say “no”. God hasn’t made a difference. Has Christianity made a difference?There are those who would say “no”… and you know, at times you want to agree with them. “Belonging to the Church put me off Christianity,” someone once said.
We can understand why people are sometimes put off the church; show me a congregation where there aren’t feuds and squabbles! Yet we somehow prefer to accept it as inevitable rather than work harder to overcome the problem. On the issue of gay Bishops, the Anglican Communion has come in for some bad press this past year, and I dare say that as the consecration of women Bishops within the Church of England draws ever near there will inevitably be further splits and divisions. We talk glibly about being an “inclusive” church but what does that really mean? For most people, if they are honest, it means “they’ll soon come round to ‘my’ way of thinking!”
You can see how the Church can put people off God! And how are we viewed by the world? Two sides of any emotive argument or debate; both sides claiming the truth; both sides claiming loyalty and allegiance to Jesus Christ; both sides waving their selected bible bits around; each side condemning the other more often than not.
We’re quite used to watching debates in Parliament on TV and seeing the Government and the Opposition battling furiously against each other. I’m sure that’s the picture we give of the church sometimes, internationally, nationally or locally. At least with the politicians what you see is what you get – there is somehow an honesty, a raw frankness, which isn’t hidden and cloaked with pseudo-religious niceties and fake-charitable smiles.
We may wish to deplore the forces of evil at present in our world today. We may wish to join in the debate about whether going to war is right or wrong. But let us pause before we do so… what are you doing to bring about peace in our world? What am I doing?
"It is easy to think of Christmas, and it is easy to believe in Christmas, but it is hard to live Christmas."
The forces of evil are not necessarily ‘out there’, in another country, in another religion, in another language or creed. The forces of evil in you and me can be very real, if we are not careful. All churches and institutions will have those driven by ambition who lust after power; those who think they are more important than others. Those closest to Jesus argued about who was to sit with him on his left or right. The irony is that the only two actually given those close positions were crucified with him at Golgotha.
So much effort will have been put in by so many so that others have “a good Christmas”. But what is a good Christmas? Beautifully wrapped presents? Nice meals and a decent bottle of wine? Flashy decorations? Snow on the ground? Smiles on the faces of young children? Perhaps these are some of the ways people have a “good” Christmas.
I reckon that from God’s point of view none of these things really matter. What constitutes a “good Christmas” is that you and I take the message of it seriously.
The wonderful thing about God is that we are always given another chance, another go at getting it right. We might have made mistakes during 2003. If you haven’t feel free to get up and go home now. We might well have offended people – unintentionally or deliberately. We might have had a few arguments and not treated people as we should.
What matters is that we have the guts to embrace the possibility of change which God offers to us. God’s coming to earth to be with his people was not a one-off event some 2000 years ago. We celebrate his coming tonight. The greatest present is his presence. We celebrate his presence at every mass when consecrated Bread and Wine are shared. We celebrate his presence every time we say sorry to him and ask for his forgiveness. And we celebrate his presence every time rifts and quarrels are healed and enemies become friends.
“The past is history, the future, mystery; what lies between is God’s gift to us, which is why it’s called the Present.
However, if you think you have nothing to say sorry for, you probably won’t experience the gift of God. If you think it’s up to the other person to make the first move, you probably won’t experience the presence of God. There is only room for God in the person who is humble, who is penitent, who is vulnerable, who is broken. And we must remember that God comes to each one of us as we are. We have no need to pretend or to try and be someone else.
I have received many Christmas Cards but one today touched me with its message: Dear Father Neil, thank you for being you. Sentiments that not all may share -I’m aware of that! I found that message so touching. We can all try and be someone else at times. Perhaps we think we would have more friends if we were different, or we would be more popular or more influential. If we are not happy about who we are, we are not happy about God’s choice. God loves us as we are, God loves who we are, warts and all; He did not make any mistakes when he made us. He deliberately threw away each mould one by one!
We cannot truly live out the full implications of the Christmas Message with proud and full hearts, with pretence or fantasy. Look closely at the Crib. Humility, honesty, simplicity and emptiness were the hall-marks of the first Holy Family and will always be the authentic hall-marks of any genuine Christian Family. A Christian family not just in name but in deed too.
As we celebrate the Great Present, God’s great presence in 2004, may we have the courage to get our priorities right. May we have the generosity to reach out to others with the un-conditional love of Christ. May we have the genuine humility to love and respect those with whom we disagree. And above all, may we have the faith to believe that God can truly make a difference, in each one of us, in our communities, our nation, and our world.
whose Son Jesus
was in the fullness of his power most gentle,
and in his greatness most humble:
bestow his mind and spirit upon us,
who have no cause for pride;
that, clothed in true humility,
we may be exalted to true greatness.
Hear our prayer through the same Jesus,
who is now Lord and Christ.