|Pope Francis with Bishop Kieran and Cardinal Cormac (Archbishop Roche in bkgrd)|
About a month before Christmas, one of the weekend papers must have asked the question, “What do we call the period between Christmas and New Year?” and fortunately the answer was given in a letter the following week: we call it Christmas. We are still celebrating it.
Christmas is a good example of how our own experiences, even our religious experiences, can be shaped and formed by the society we live in and the culture that surrounds us. We need to be attentive to what is being done to us, especially when we think that we’re not being influenced by it, and that we are immune to the effects of advertising and other things aimed at changing the way we think and behave.
Most families are probably still glancing -a bit more nervously now - at the remains of a turkey, a turkey that turned out to be just a bit bigger than was needed, just like last year. There are probably presents around somewhere that haven’t been looked at again since last Wednesday, and may never be looked at again. But we allow ourselves this extravagance because we are told, in another context that “We’re worth it.” And of course Christmas is ‘all about the children’ and you can’t do too much for them.
Christmas is not all about children, and you can easily do too much for them. Christmas is first of all about God, and ourselves and God. It is about what God wants for us and what God can quite reasonably expect of us, given all the he has done for us.
Putting children at the heart of Christmas automatically pushes the focus of the celebration onto families, and this is a very narrow focus. What about the other end of the spectrum of life, an older generation who very often are made to feel part of family celebrations, but not always, because they’re difficult and they’ll spoil things? What about people who do not have families and may be spending these days alone? Is Christmas not about them too? In fact, is it not possibly more about them, and including them?
Our own western society has a very limited image of family. It tends to present it as just two generations and in terms of parents and the number of children they have. If someone were to ask you, “How many are in your family?” would you think to include grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles? They are actually family, and if you do what they call a ‘family tree’ you can see this quite clearly.
Today the Church asks us to look again at a wider family, a much more inclusive family. The second reading, from St Paul’s letter to the Colossians, does talk explicitly about family, urging wives to be submissive and husbands to be gentle with them, in language that would get him a queue at the door after Mass today. But before that, he talks in much more general terms, asking us to examine our relations with all people. He asks us to be clothed or covered with compassion, kindness and humility, gentleness and patience, and in the same way as our ordinary clothes say so much about us, so should these things. People should be able to see straightaway our compassion, kindness and humility, gentleness and patience. These are the things that are drawing thousands and thousands to St Peter’s Square every week to welcome Pope Francis, a man wearing these qualities, his ‘heart on his sleeve’ and offering a very clear example of what the follower of Christ should look like. I was in one of our schools just before Christmas, for a day of reconciliation, when about one in five of the Catholic students went to confession. One girl came to me and said she wanted to come to me in particular: I didn’t know her and asked why, and she said, “Because you’ve met the pope.”
Paul goes on to say, “Teach each other, and advise each other, in all wisdom.” This doesn’t mean lecture or correct, it means modelling behaviour that builds up and strengthens the bonds within our Christian family, and then finally outside our Christian family. This will only be done through compassion, kindness and humility, gentleness and patience.
I hope that the last few weeks have not been too much of a strain and worry for you, above all if you are on a low income. At this time we have to be particularly conscious of those who feel the same pressure to provide the whole Christmas package for their children, but who simply cannot afford it and may have slid into or gone further into debt.
I hope, too, that the year ahead is kind to you, and it will be all the kinder if we are kinder to one another.
This is perhaps the only opportunity I have to thank all those who very kindly sent me a card for Christmas; your kindness and gentleness gave me real support and strength. Thank you.
With all good wishes for a happy and peaceful 2014, and my prayers for you all.
Audio version below:
Bishop Pastoral Letter 29 Dec 2013.MP3