At this time of year, here in the northern hemisphere, we are enduring the shortest and coldest days of the year. For thousands of years our pagan ancestors used these short winter days to celebrate and look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight. For them the end of December was a perfect time to do this – most wine and beer made in the autumn was finally fermented and ready for drinking; and animals, slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, ensured there was a supply of fresh meat for feasting.
In time, as Christianity came to Europe and took over its culture, Christians adopted this pagan Winter Solstice festival to add another celebration of their own, namely, the birth of their own Sun God, Jesus Christ. They named their festival Christ-mas, celebrating, as we do now, how the Creator of the 13.5 billion years-old universe entered our 4.5 billion years-old planet in human form, beginning as a tiny vulnerable child born to a poor young Palestinian couple named Joseph and Mary. Their child, born in Bethlehem, grew up to be the man Jesus of Nazareth, where the family had settled, and who gave the last three years of his life showing by word and example that every life matters to the Creator whom he called Father.
So now at Christmas time, we Christians celebrate on two levels.
Firstly, we join with millions of people indulging in traditional Winter Solstice fare – letting our hair down (what’s left of it), eating and drinking (too much), and looking forward in hope to longer, brighter and warmer days. Normally this also would be a special time for renewing the bonds between family and friends but, sadly, the current pandemic has put paid to that this year.
Secondly, not even the rapidly spreading coronavirus can stop us from celebrating the Christian feast of God becoming human and sharing our existence. Perhaps, for some of us the pandemic may be making us even more aware of why Christ was born? He taught that each one of us is precious to God and remains so, even if we screw up or make a mess of our lives. He taught that no one is beyond God’s loving embrace, that to God I am better than my worst mistake, that no sin of mine is greater than God’s love, and that with Jesus I can always, if I wish, begin again. It was for these truths he was born; for these he died; and for these we have cause to celebrate.
While this may be the darkest time of year, with the fewest hours of daylight, another form of darkness has been overwhelming us for much of the year. It is estimated so far that there have been over 75 million cases and nearly two million deaths from Covid-19 worldwide. To add to this the various lockdowns have brought an unprecedented economic crisis not just for governments but for working people and the owners of businesses large and small. This year has been truly bleak.
But now, thank God, our prayers and hopes for a glimmer of light are being answered. Thanks to the brilliance of scientists here and abroad, the first COVID vaccines are now being distributed and have already been administered to some of you joining in this Mass. So we can hope now that we soon will be able to meet and embrace loved ones in safety; share a meal and good times with close friends; go on holiday and bask in warm summer climes; renew relationships in church with fellow parishioners; and have medical procedures proceed without being cancelled at the last minute.
In these past nine months we have had much in common with the people Isaiah addressed in the First Reading. They were living in exile, in a truly dark time in their history. They were in a ‘dark place’ or, as Isaiah described them, a “people that walked in darkness”. Haven’t we also been in a form of exile for most of the past year – exiled, separated or alienated from one other and from a comfortable existence we took all to easily for granted? Now, thank God, our ‘exile’ may be coming to an end with that long shadow of darkness slowly, but surely, giving way to the light of hope.
So we have cause to rejoice on many levels – that God has not abandoned us; that Christ – Immanuel – is with us in our struggles; and that we are no longer engulfed in darkness …
The people that walked in darkness
has seen a great light;
on those who live in a land of deep shadow
a light has shone.
You have made their gladness greater,
You have made their joy increase …
(Isaiah 9: 1-4)
Holy Name, Jesmond