A Question of Faith, Fr Liam Power’s Fortnightly Column
THE normal Christmas festivities and celebrations will be greatly tempered this year because of Covid-19 restrictions. Family gatherings will be limited and Christmas parties cancelled. We were anticipating greater freedom of movement and hoping for more opportunities to reconnect with friends and colleagues. After many months of physical distancing, with the immediacy of face-to-face chats, hugs and handshakes withdrawn and many perhaps feeling emotionally isolated, we were hoping for a greater level of engagement over the Christmas. It is not to be.
To comply with safety guidelines, churches are obliged to put in place a booking system for Christmas liturgies. We have put on three extra Masses, but we are already booked out. So many who like to come to Mass at Christmas will be disappointed. Even though all our services are live-streamed, people prefer to gather as community to celebrate the feast of Christmas. We, in the parish, will miss connecting with those who travel home for Christmas and who look forward to coming to church on Christmas eve with parents and friends. The liturgy itself will be severely curtailed. We are not allowed have any choral or congregational singing and services are limited to one-hour duration.
‘We have re-learned how important it is to be compassionate and above all how dependent we are on family and on community’
And yet, I believe our Christmas celebrations this year may perhaps be more meaningful than heretofore. We have learned much from our experience of the pandemic. It has taught us about the fragility of life, how precious it is, and that we must do all we can to protect one another. We have had to sacrifice the right to exercise our freedom or liberty in many different areas of life, all for the greater good of our society. It has given us a deeper appreciation of our responsibility for the common good. We have re-learned how important it is to be compassionate and above all how dependent we are on family and on community. We know how soul-destroying isolation can be. This experience might lead us to a deeper appreciation of the meaning of Christmas.
The message of Christmas is communicated through the Gospel stories of the birth of Jesus. Amazingly, the stories seem to retain their appeal and freshness even in their retelling year in and year out. Literature and poetry can re-awaken the imagination and the spirit and bring us to the heart of the Christmas experience. I’m thinking of Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol. His evocation of the Spirit of Christmas present, which takes Scrooge into the city streets, which even though “mired with mud and sooty snow” (he found) there was gaiety and joy all around. It is manifested, for example, by the piles of filberts in the shops which were “mossy and brown, recalling in their fragrance ancient walks among the woods and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves.” He describes the grocer’s shops as redolent with the rich scent of tea and coffee almonds, cinnamon, figs and candied fruits.”
Dickens also gives a vivid portrayal of Christmas feasting in the Cratchits’ household.
The author’s purpose is to make the story a vehicle of the fundamental Christian truth of the Incarnation, the kernel of the Christmas story. Scrooge observes that the Spirit of Christmas Present is able “not withstanding his gigantic size, to accommodate himself to any place with ease… he stood beneath a low roof quite as gracefully and like supernatural creature, as it was possible, he could have done in any lofty hall.” The Christmas story proclaims the humble stooping down of the Creator to be born at Bethlehem.
It is because of this humble stooping down that a change of outlook, of attitude is possible. The ghost of Christmas past, symbolised by “the imprisoning chains of grasping covetousness” worn by Marley’s Ghost are released and are now transformed “into the freedom of compassion and mercy.” Scrooge, moving through the smog-filled streets, could only see the ghosts of selfish, greedy contemporaries, but are now, on Christmas day, suffused with the light of heaven:- “no fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial stirring, cold… golden sunlight, Heavenly sky, sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious!” He sees, through the mediation of the Ghost of Christmas Present, the crowds hurrying to church “with their gayest faces.”
Dickens links the worship in church with the Christmas feasting and the experience of peace and joy as bitterness and division are overcome. Christmas celebrates the presence of God’s Word with us in every aspect and part of our lives. The Christmas liturgy beautifully articulates the truth that in the Word, there is no longer a division between the sacred and the secular, the spiritual and the material. Every dimension of our lives is suffused with wonder and Spirit. May that awareness lift all hearts this Christmas.