Homily of Bishop Kevin at Midnight Mass, Christmas 2017
Homily of Bishop Kevin at Midnight Mass, Christmas Eve 24th December 2017
Some of you may be familiar with a story written by The Greek philosopher, Plato, in one of his dialogues called “The Republic”. It is called the Allegory of the Cave. He asks his listeners to imagine a big cave, deep underground, where people were kept chained up all through their lives. They sit facing a blank wall. There is a fire above and behind them and people walk over and back between them and the fire, carrying statues of all kinds of animals and trees and people, which were reflected on the wall. As far as the prisoners are concerned, the shadows of the wall are the only reality there is. It is all that they can see.
Imagine then, that one of the prisoners is set free. He turns around and looks, with difficulty, at the fire itself and at all the objects that are being carried over and back between them and the fire. It dawns on him that there is more to reality than he previously thought. Now imagine says Plato, that this prisoner, unchained, is brought tight out to the mouth of the cave and is able to walk in the sunlight in the world above. He sees animals and trees and he sees the sun itself. It is a painful and difficult adjustment at first, but he is now ready to contemplate the truth.
Plato told this story to support his belief that, a lot of time, what we take for reality is only a shadow and what we imagine to be the truth is only opinion. If he were alive today, I suppose he might say “don’t believe everything you read in the papers”. He would say, “you have to get out of the cave”. You need to use the gift of Wisdom to explore the real meaning of your life and to engage creatively with all that is going on in the world around you. But how do you get out of the cave?
Towards the end of the story, the prisoner who has been led out of the darkness and has experienced the light of truth, is challenged to return into the depths of the cave. The mission of this philosopher is to set the other prisoners free, encouraging them to abandon their meaningless existence and to come out into the light.
I was reminded of the allegory of the cave when I read the passage from Isaiah which we have as our first reading this evening. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”. Isaiah’s great hope was that the people of Israel would be rescued, not just from exile in Babylon, but from the darkness of sin, and led into the light of God’s love.
Isaiah, like Plato, uses images of imprisonment and oppression: “the yoke that weighs people down”, the “bar across the shoulders”, the “rod of the oppressor”, “the cloak rolled in blood”. They are all symbols of the exile, which was part of the reality of Isaiah’s life. But I think they also serve as a reminder of how easy it is for any one of us to become bogged down in negativity, to become wrapped up in ourselves, or to roll through life like tumbleweed in the desert without any sense of where we are going.
Walking in the darkness, is just another way of saying that there are elements of brokenness and emptiness in all of our lives. Sometimes that brokenness is the result of our own failure and our own sinfulness. Sometimes it is caused by the thoughtlessness or the sinful attitudes of others. Sometimes there seems to be no explanation. In his recent letter of encouragement, the Joy of Love, Pope Francis writes very honestly about the many challenges which face families and individuals; material challenges such as unemployment, poverty and the lack of adequate housing; personal struggles with addiction; spiritual emptiness. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The people next door have worries of which we know nothing. As Pope Francis points out, all of these things, together with our human frailty, put pressure on our relationships.
Like the prisoners in the cave, we may sometimes feel that this is the only reality that there is. It sometimes seems easier to stay the way we are. But God wants something more for us and, probably, in our better moments we want something more for ourselves.
Human experience tells us that none of us can be his or her own Saviour. That is why Jesus was born. He is the light of which Isaiah speaks. He doesn’t just talk to us about God; he literally puts a human face on God. He is “God with us” (Emmanuel). It is God’s light, not ours, that penetrates the darkness. We can reflect his light; cooperate with His grace. But only He can set us free.
The birth of Jesus in a stable, which we celebrate tonight, is not just an accident or a misfortune. It might not seem to be a great way to start, but it is actually the beginning of the freedom with which he lived his whole life. It seems to be God’s way of telling us that a meaningful human existence is not about what we have but about the kind of people we are.
If you have been in the supermarket recently, you have probably heard the invitation to “have yourself a merry little Christmas” and it goes along with the suggestion that “from now on our troubles will be far away.” That may be the stuff of movies, but it is not what Jesus is about.
He didn’t come to take away all our troubles; he came to empower us, by allowing us to see in him what we can be at our best. Born with nothing, he lives simply and dies with nothing. Yet his whole existence is filled with the power of God’s love; a love that spills over from him to touch the life of every person he meets, beginning with the shepherds. He invites us to live in that love, and through that love to transform the earth, or at least that part of it where we live.
In our second reading this evening, St. Paul writes to the new Christians in Thessalonika, encouraging them give up everything that does not lead to God,…. to be self-restrained and to live good and religious lives. In this way they can be free to welcome Christ when he comes again.
So what about you?
Can you put a name on the brokenness or the emptiness in your life?
What would it mean for you to be set free, to come out into the light?
What hope do you carry in your heart, for your own life and the life of your family?
How does Jesus speak to that hope?
How will you give expression to that hope in your own life?