By Sarah Mac Donald - 25 December, 2015
Ireland’s relationship with God is “increasingly ambiguous” and some people want a society in which there is no place for God in the public square, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has warned in his Christmas homily.
At Christmas Mass in St Mary’s Pro Cathedral in Dublin, the Archbishop said that alongside men and women of deep faith and commitment there are those who struggle with the very idea of God, because of the harshness of the world and the mystery of evil.
He added that there are those who are angry with God and with the Church or indeed are angry with God because of the Church. “How many times do I hear the phrase: ‘I am just hanging in there by the tips of my fingers’.”
Highlighting that some people want to banish the God, who appears in a crib, off our streets, Dr Martin asked why are people afraid of or unsettled by a God who appears as a defenceless child?
He also expressed concern that some believers would feel happier with “a warrior God who builds ramparts of defence”.
Addressing the Christmas story, Dr Martin said a God who appears as a defenceless child is not “a useless fairy tale” or the angry, arrogant and judgmental God that we might have been taught about in school.
Cold human rationality will not lead us to the God who appears in the birth of Jesus Christ, he said and added that the message of the birth of Jesus in simplicity and defencelessness helps us to understand that dreams and idealism are possible.
Full text of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s homily:
“No matter how many times we hear these Christmas readings we remain each year deeply struck by them again and again. There is something about the atmosphere of this holy night which never fails to touch hearts. No matter how busy we have been over these last few days with the preparations for Christmas, this Midnight Mass somehow always manages to change our attitude and to open in our hearts a unique moment of wonder and simplicity, as we catch a glimpse of what Christmas is really about.
Who is this child whom we celebrate? How can this vulnerable and defenceless baby in swaddling clothes be the Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father and Prince of Peace with wide dominion who is mentioned in our First reading? How can this simplest of all events, the birth of a baby make “salvation possible for the whole human race”, as our second reading notes.
The Psalm repeats “Today a saviour has been born” and yet the world seems oblivious – then and now – to this event which took place in a minor town, heralded only by shepherds, who themselves are out on a cold night without human comfort. Where are the powerful? Herod and his courtiers sit cynically interested only in any possible threat to their power which they feel they can brutally supress. Why should they be afraid of a defenceless baby?
Much more interesting is the question: who were those who were able to grasp what was happening and seek honestly to understand who this child is? That is the interesting and important question because it is the question that is posed not just to us here this night, but to the world in which we live.
What do we understand by this birth? Some feel that this event can be ignored or simply brushed aside as a nice but rather fairy-tale-like story? Others look on the story from the viewpoint of cold, clinical, rationality and say that there is no way that this could have happened, so why bother to try to understand it.
How do we understand God? If we get trapped in our own categories of thought, combined with false ideas of God which we have inherited from our own religious education, then we will never understand the mystery of this Holy night and the mystery of who God is.
On Sunday last, we opened here in the Pro-Cathedral, along with Cathedrals all around the world, a Holy Door of Mercy and corridor of Mercy to celebrate the Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis. The door is just an ordinary door. It has been here in the Cathedral for nearly two centuries. A coat of paint does not change it a great deal; the significance of the door is simply to remind us that the door into which we enter to attain fullness of life is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the door of mercy who can change our perspectives about life.
A God, who appears as a defenceless child, is not the angry, arrogant and judgmental God that we might have been taught about in school. A God who appears as a defenceless child breaks out from the categories of those who think only in cold rationality. We may be able rationally to come to accept the existence of God, but human rationality will not lead us to the God who appears in the birth of Jesus Christ.
A God who appears as a defenceless child is not a useless fairy tale: a God who appears as a defenceless child is a powerful advocate for us: not a God who above all claims personal prerogatives. It is not just that we can identify this God as one like us in all our challenges, but a God who identifies himself with us and brings us into his own life of grace and truth and salvation.
We live in an Ireland which is becoming increasingly ambiguous in its understanding of God. Alongside men and women of deep faith and commitment there are those who wish to build their future and future of our society by removing God from the public square. There are those who are too busy to pay much more than lip service and outward cultural adherence to God. There are those who struggle with the very idea of God, because of the harshness of the world we live in and the mystery of evil. There are those who are angry with God and with the Church or indeed are angry with God because of the Church. How many times do I hear the phrase: “I am just hanging in there by the tips of my fingers”.
Why are people afraid of or unsettled by a God who appears as a defenceless child? What is it with a defenceless child that upsets? Some would wish to banish the God who appears in a crib off our streets? Others, believers, would feel happier with a warrior God who builds ramparts of defence.
We have to ask ourselves as believers how a God who appears as a defenceless child challenges us about how we live our lives. The God who rejects conventional defences challenges us also to be there for all those who are wounded and alone and burdened and troubled. We are called to be with them unconditionally, not building up within us defence mechanisms based on prestige or security or self-centeredness.
This Year of Mercy is not simply about touching the plinths of a man-made door, but rather about ourselves beginning to understand that mercy means stripping ourselves of what is intemperate and superficial and rediscovering the sense of simplicity which we uniquely feel this evening.
Christmas calls us to change our lives. It is not about pointing to others. We know well how much self-centredness remains in each of our own hearts. We know how much we believers, just as any other, are infected with the same sense of superficiality which can easily be proliferated in our world.
Where do we look for true security? The first reading stresses that God “makes us secure in justice and integrity”. Justice and integrity cannot be achieved simply by laws and good policies. Justice is attained by men and women who live justly. Integrity is attained by men and women who live integrity, whatever the cost, not for fame or recognition, but because integrity belongs to being truly human.
We celebrate the birth of Jesus and we regain at this celebration something of the wonder we experienced as children. But wonder is not something for children alone. We all have to rediscover that sense of wonder in the face of what goodness and honesty, justice and integrity can attain.
We pray on this Christmas of the Year of Mercy for our Church, that it may be a space where we learn selflessness after the Jesus who came to give himself for our salvation without any pretentiousness. Pretentiousness divides; mercy and compassion heal and reconcile.
We pray on this Christmas night for Ireland as we embark on a year of remembrance, that we will not just look back but vigorously work to rediscover the ideals proposed by a Proclamation written “In the name of God”, and together work to create structures of justice and integrity at the service of all those who have been rendered defenceless by our self-centredness or indifference.
We need the courage to dream and not be imprisoned in the merely pragmatic. The message of the birth of Jesus in simplicity and defencelessness helps us to understand that such dreaming and idealism are possible.