24 December 2018 – Homily By Bishop Treanor for 2018 Christmas Midnight Mass at St Peter’s Cathedral, Belfast
HOMILY NOTES – MIDNIGHT MASS 2018
ST PETER’S CATHEDRAL
Readings ; Is 62.11-12; Ps 96; Tit 3.4-7; Lk 2.15-20
I. Gathered by “news of great joy”
As we gather to celebrate and receive in our hearts once again the “news of great joy” – that in Jesus of Nazareth God has entered and ultimately saved humanity from the power of evil – I welcome you one and all to this midnight Mass in St Peter’s Cathedral, Belfast. Together with the parishioners of St Peter’s, with those who worship regularly here, with the clergy of the parish and Fr. Paul and Fr. Phonsie from the Redemptorist community at Clonard monastery, I greet all who have returned and are spending Christmas among us. I bid you and all visitors heartily welcome tonight and we thank you for your presence among us.
As Christians we gather to celebrate and to gaze with outer and inner eye on the mystery of the incarnation, the personal self-revelation of God in the person and flesh of Jesus of Nazareth. Whatever our faith stance, whatever our current conscious engagement with the ultimate questions of existence and with the call of the Good News of the gospel, the message of Christmas speaks to all human hearts with its promise of care, peace and justice. Christmas speaks of that divine loving care, of peace and justice for all of humanity from the manger-born God.
II. “News of great joy”
As we listen to the three readings designated for the liturgy of the Word on Christmas night – readings taken from the prophet Isaiah, from St Paul’s letter to Titus and from the second chapter of the gospel according to St Luke – we notice how these texts, though written in different eras and in different historical and cultural contexts, address the interface of the human and the divine. These readings speak of that mysterious zone of intimation, of intuitive question where transcendence, and/or the question of ultimate meaning in life, is poised on the edge of daily experiences. Different from each other in literary form and type, the common focus of these readings from the Scriptures is the interface of the human and the divine and particularly the restorative effect of that encounter on human relationships and the societal order.
Let’s look again at the progression in that first reading from the prophet Isaiah (9.1-7) : these archetypal lines of Jewish faith carry us through conditions of life and existence. They allude to a series of transformations. Notice, firstly, from the imprisonment of darkness to the radiance of light. Then, the imagery evokes the change from a state of oppression to the condition of emancipation and freedom, from war and defence to a promise of peace guaranteed in the birth of a child Messiah.
In the Christ child, Jesus of Nazareth, Christians have identified that long promised Messiah, not simply by dint of angel voices, but existentially by glimpse of godliness perceived by his followers in his words, actions, way of dealing with humanity and ultimately by his passion, death and resurrection from the dead.
On this night those angel voices, alluded to in the gospel text, invite us once again to attune our hearts and minds, our reason, to the “good news” of the gospel. They invite us to explore the mystery of Christ, as incarnate Son of God, for its import and significance for the human quest for meaning in life, for the grounds upon which we determine our contribution to life and society in the course of our personal lifespan.
That invitation is set out in telegraphic terms in the second reading from St Paul’s letter to Titus (2.11-14). Writing this letter well after the experience of Calvary and indeed after his own dramatic discovery of Jesus as Christ and Saviour, St Paul asserts that God’s grace has been revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. His point is that those who come to know Christ, Christians, have a responsibility, encoded with an ambition, to promote and work for the achievement of the faith-inspired justice, peace and integrity associated with the Messiah figure of the Old Testament. This vision of faith, life and society was personally assumed by Christ and appropriated by Him to the ultimate point of His divine self-sacrificing love.
III. The mystery of the Nativity : source and inspiration for life in time and in eternity
So as we listen this year to these readings from the Hebrew scriptures and from the New Testament and respond to the spiritual heart of Christmas, over the coming days of Christmas our thoughts might dwell on the person of Jesus, incarnate Son of God, who revolutionised humanity’s image and concept of God and who made his own self-sacrificing love the measure and lodestar of our love of every human person, no matter their background, life story, creed or colour.
We might give some thought to the ground and source for the values, rights and virtues we espouse and pursue. And we might assess if in a Christ-like way, they champion and defend the weak, the sick and those with special needs, the homeless and poor, the stranger. For it is our deep-seated attitudes as individual members of society that shape the body politic and render it capable of facing the issues of our times with innovative and visionary responsibility.
For more and more among us in this constitutive season in the Christian calendar, the call to awareness and responsible Christian citizenship in regard to determinative issues of our era – migration flows and the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, homelessness, climate change and the care of the environment, artificial intelligence, the future of work and work forms, destructive technologies, the growing gap between rich and poor … to mention but a few examples … has become more pressing.
In the face of these issues and challenges, the human family stands in ever greater need of enhanced institutions and mechanisms of world governance. Many of us will remember that Pope John XXIII already signalled this need in 1963 in his Encyclical, Pacem in Terris (cf. nos.130-138), whilst suggesting with great foresight conditions for their legitimacy and acceptance on the part of peoples and nations.
These issues of our time raise with ever greater urgency the fundamental subject of our understanding of humanity and the destiny of our species, our understanding of the universe. Not least, these issues raise the subject of our self-understanding as persons, as members of the human family and its evolving history. A question for this Christmastide might run : how are we equipping ourselves and our youth to address these vital questions and to contribute to community and public discourse on these matters?
Admittedly, these are subjects for other settings. However, their consideration, good governance and management require a religious and moral insight. For the promotion of that insight in life and in the public space Christians have a shared and communal responsibility. On this Christmas night it is spiritually re-energising to recall that by virtue of our baptismal re-birth in Christ we, Christians, carry a responsibility before history for the common good of humanity and of creation. This is one key message in Pope Francis’s much acclaimed encyclical, Laudato Sì
In the face of these concerns for humanity’s future and for the spiritual and temporal well-being of our families, neighbours and fellow citizens, let us pray on this Christmas Eve that the celebration of the Feast of the Nativity will enrich our appreciation of faith in Jesus Christ as a “power”, as St Paul would put it, for living and for dying.
Let us pray too that these days may inspire us to deepen our knowledge and appreciation of the Christian heritage and that they may renew our faith-inspired commitment to the care of family, self, neighbour and all God’s creation.