Homily of Bishop Kevin at Midnight Mass, 24th December 2018, Sligo Cathedral
Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken. I remember, as a child, being told at school, that Caesar Augustus was an arrogant man; that he was not interested in people, but only in finding out how many people’s lives he controlled and how powerful he really was. I don’t know how successful he was. I don’t know if the enumerators managed to track down all the shepherds in the hills around Judaea. But it does seem that the census created a huge disturbance for ordinary people like Joseph and Mary who had to travel back to their native city to be counted. It crossed my mind that Caesar Augustus would have been delighted with all the information technology that we have at our disposal in the twenty first century.
Most of us grumble from time to time about bureaucracy and the “information overload” that goes along with it. We seem to be forever filling out forms and, as many doctors and nurses will tell you, the amount of time spent in administration sometimes seems to be greater than the time spent on actually responding to the real needs of people.
Our most recent national census took place in 2016. It seems that there are now 4.7 million people living in the state (an increase of 25% in the past 20 years). The average age of the population is going up, largely due to people living longer and the very significant number of young people who have emigrated in recent years. Behind those statistics, there are some real challenges. I don’t think any government these days would bother doing a census just to find out how many people lived under their authority. The value of the information is in the possibility of planning for a society which responds more effectively and more equitably to the needs of all our people. Unfortunately, in spite of all the information we gather, there are many people living in Ireland today who feel that they are simply “another statistic”. They are counted, but they don’t really count. They have no room – except perhaps in an “Inn”
The Scripture readings this evening give us just one vital piece of information. “There is a child born for us; a son given to us”. “Today, in the City of David, a Saviour has been born for you. He is Christ the Lord”. There is one God, one child, one mother and her husband Joseph, with just a handful of shepherds looking on. Statistically, it is all quite irrelevant.
But the Son of God, by his birth at Bethlehem, made every human being a son or daughter of God. And it is not just “all of us” together, but each one of us who is loved, from the oldest adult to the tiniest baby in the womb. Nobody is just a statistic. That is the mystery of the Incarnation; it is not just that the Word became flesh, but that through his life among us each one of us is lifted up to share in the life of God. As we heard in our second reading from the Letter to Titus, God’s grace has been revealed and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race.
Not only that, but through the mystery of the Incarnation, the whole of creation is transformed. The Son of God walked on this earth, saw the same daylight as we see and breathed the air that we breathe. He used the ordinary things of creation, such as bread and wine, oil and water as the visible signs of his saving action. His teaching was not made up of complex theories; it was illustrated with simple things like the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, sheep and shepherds, sowers and seed.
The Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God
It will flame out, like shining with shook foil
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Following the most recent census, there was a great deal of emphasis on the decline in the numbers of people who described themselves as Catholics. In a way, it is perhaps more surprising that over 78% of the population does claim to be Catholic. When we include Christians of other traditions that goes up to over 80%. But, let’s not fall into the trap of Caesar Augustus. Interesting as they are, faith is not about statistics. Perhaps the more significant question is: how many Christians – how many of us – have been able to grasp and are actually living out of the experience of God’s love, which has been made present in the person of Jesus Christ? There is no statistic for that. It is something that is known only to God himself.
I am happy to say that there are many good things happening in our Diocese at the moment, which are intended to help people to reflect on the mystery of what God is doing among us through Jesus Christ. I’m think of the bible study programme in the Friary, the formation programme for parish Catechists, and of course the Alpha programme which is taking place in a number of places in the Diocese at present. I hope that these things, as well as helping people to become disciples, will also help us to become missionaries.
Our mother, the Church, invites us this evening to open ourselves to be touched by the mystery of the Incarnation, to be transformed by the love of a God who sent his only Son. Can we open our hearts to that love and allow it to become the source of life and energy in us; an energy which then flows out from us to touch the world around us. Can we look around us and see, here in the Church and in the streets outside, other men and women, other children, who are loved just as we are loved. It is in the power of that love that we see the true meaning of our existence. As Pope Benedict XVI said, at the Mass of his inauguration as Pope:
“Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ.”
No one is excluded from that love, absolutely no one. But it is a challenging love that calls for a response. It is in prayerful reflection, before the crib, or the cross, or the Blessed Sacrament, or in the quietness of our own hearts that we discover the mystery and that we draw to become disciples in the true sense of the word. It is in pondering the mystery, as Mary did, that we learn “to be self-restrained and to live good and religious lives”, to use the words of the second reading, and how we come to be “God’s own people with no ambition for anything but to do good”. It is, in the final analysis, only through our faithful witness to the love of God in our own lives, in our families and in our society, that we can be part of the mission of Jesus in lifting the “yoke bearing down” upon so many people and breaking the rod of oppression.