2016 Christmas homily of Archbishop Christopher Prowse
December 25, 2016, St Christopher’s Cathedral, Canberra
(THEME: Christmas – Tenderness and joy in a tough and desperate world)
In recent days Pope Francis has turned 80 years of age.
When asked about Christmas, he said it is all about “tenderness and joy”.
When we contemplate deeply about Jesus born in the humble stable of Bethlehem these two words are most prominent – tenderness and joy. This is best perhaps understood by the context of the world in which Jesus was born. It was the opposite of tenderness and joy. Indeed the cultural context of Jesus’s birth 2000 years ago was tough and desperate. The political situation was perilous. The Jewish people were under military control by one of the fiercest military regimes of antiquity – the Roman Empire. Torture and crucifixions were common for anybody who deviated against the Romans. They tolerated the Jewish religion and set up puppet leaders as a way of quelling resistance. But even within the Jewish leadership of the time, there was much fear and a hard-line was taken towards issues of theology and religious practice. We discover from the scriptures that in the days before and after Jesus’s birth King Herod was already jealous that Jesus might become a competitor. What enormous insecurity he harboured in his heart. It even reached the point of him ordering the destruction of innocent infants as he was not able to locate the exact identity of the infant Jesus. We celebrate this feast three days after Christmas on the 28th of December. It is called the feast of the Holy Innocence.
Even on the night of Christ’s birth, there was great harshness and lack of compassion. We think of St Joseph and Mary. We read in the scriptures that Jesus had to be born in a stable because “there was no room at the inn”. But just imagine the heartache and the pain for Joseph and Mary who were not able to find appropriate accommodation for the birth of the Saviour. Let us not sanitise Christmas totally and make it all tinsel and apple pie! Let it be said frankly that Jesus, so tender and fragile, was born into a hard and inhospitable world in all respects.
Yet indeed the Saviour was born nonetheless in a non-perfect situation. There was indeed great joy. This was reflected in the details of the star, the shepherds, the arrival of the three wise men and the angels singing “Glory to God in the highest”.
Jesus does not wait for the world to be perfect. Jesus comes into an imperfect world to bring tenderness in the midst of hardness of heart and joy in the midst of growing despair. This was brought to my heart more clearly in recent times. After one of the Cathedral masses a young migrant couple came up to me and asked me to bless their new born child. It was the first time the child had come to church. The child was only a few weeks old! He was sleeping in his mother’s arms and I felt I was meeting a modern day Jesus and Mary and Joseph. The child was so fragile and tender yet at the same time so much loved and capable of giving love even before he could say one word. The fact that it was a migrant couple coming to present their child to me was also significant. Migrants in Australia, especially coming from Catholic Christian backgrounds, are a real hope for the church of Australia both now and in the future. We marginalise their contributions in our parishes to our own peril. I believe they are the new evangelisers. They have no difficulty in bringing their strong Catholic faith from their home countries to Australia. Let us hope that their expressions of their faith, sometimes so different to our more Anglo-Saxon manifestations, are accepted fully. Never let future historians say that new Catholic migrants to Australia found “no room at the inn” in the Australian Catholic church.
That little migrant child also has been born into a rather hard Australian society today. Clearly it is of a different nature altogether to the time of Jesus, nonetheless there are increasing signs of intolerance and a lack of humanity in our fair and beautiful country of Australia. I find these attitudes like weeds amongst the great wheat of Australia. Let us hope we have the courage in all aspects of our public life and private life to make sure the garden of the Lord is free from such poison. We want to do what our national anthem proclaims to do – REJOICE! We want to “advance Australia fair”.
There are some worrying signs that we cannot deny. In recent weeks I have noticed in advertising and music and now even in people’s common talk that the “reason for the season” is too often marginalised. People seem to be increasingly calling Christmas “the festive season”. They tend to ask you more, what you buying or what have you received by way of gifts? They tend to ask you, where are you going for Christmas?, rather than anything to do with the Christmas story. This is a subtle hardness of heart in the growing Australian mentality. It can so easily be resisted by bringing out the tenderness and joy of the Christ event. Family gatherings at Christmas time and the fact that we are all tired at the end of a hard year, can easily make us quite hard in our judgement of others. We can so easily loose our temper at the very time when we should be doing the opposite.
So, at least in this mass, we can take a big deep breath and focus on the Christ event which brings into the world the tenderness and joy of God himself in Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. That God has brought tenderness and joy into our world through Jesus means that our real mission is to bring tenderness and joy into the world in which we live. Christians are followers of Jesus. We are imitators of Christ. Therefore let us imitate his tenderness and fragility and compassion and do all that we can to bring the joy of Christ into our world in the days and year ahead.