My Auntie Mary was the most famous person in our family, but she attained fame in an unusual way. She was my grandmother’s aunt and had died long before I was born. I knew only two salient facts about her: she lived on North Street, Skibbereen. And she died on Christmas Day. What happens on Christmas Day lasts long in the memory, as has been the case in our clan.
Take the case of Bishop William Delaney of Cork, now long dead. It was unusual enough that he was born in Kilbrogan Church in Bandon in 1804. But what made his entry to the world particularly memorable was that it took place on the floor of the sacristy — on Christmas Day.
Some people claim December 25 is just another date on the calendar, which can be easily ignored. People who act like this have one of two motives; either a disdain for all the day means or a recent experience which clouds any happy memories that might in the past have been associated with Christmas.
The former group are undoubtedly growing: Ireland has more and more unbelievers, who are annoyed at the intrusion of anything that smacks of religion (or superstition, as they would have it) into the public life of the nation. Such people can cope with a mid-winter break and some brightness to cheer the bleak days of winter, but the birth of a Saviour leaves them cold. Those of us who believe can only wish them well and say a silent prayer that the Good News may at some time enter their heart.
While Easter might be the more significant feast, Christmas marks a profound mystery too: incarnation, the Word becoming flesh”
The latter group contains each of us, at least in some years. For anyone bereaved in the year before any Christmas, celebrating the feast can be unbearable.
A person whose parent dies, or a spouse or sibling, finds Christmas extremely tough. And to those people, add those suffering other traumas – sickness, loss of a friendship or relationship, breakdown of marriage, isolation. Memories of happier times flood back and threaten to overwhelm.
The keeping of December 25 as just one more day on the calendar is an understandable survival mechanism.
But Christmas cannot be ignored. Whether December 25 can be proven as the date on which Jesus of Nazareth was born or not, it is the date on which the Church invites all her children to mark his birthday. This intrusion of the divine into our world is no small matter.
While Easter might be the more significant feast (for what good would anything be to us if it were for this life only?), Christmas marks a profound mystery too: incarnation, the Word becoming flesh.
For those for whom Christmas is an unbearable endurance, the feast offers some solace: God became one of us and understands all that ails us. Jesus who wept at the grave of Lazarus weeps with us, even when sorrow afflicts us at his birth.
And, in the spirit of Advent hope, we cannot forget: on other Christmasses, we may smile again.
Cribs are getting upwardly mobile
I notice that Christmas cribs in churches are making quite a journey round the church. Fifty years ago, nativity scenes were found at the back, often near the door, accessible to anyone who might call in, just like the baptismal font.
With Vatican II, everything moved to the sanctuary, more visible to the people but strangely also, further away from the people.
The crib has in places even taken its place in front of the altar, almost blocking it out. But the pendulum swings on, and now the crib reappears in more discreet corners, close to the people once more…
A small group gathered at my kitchen table for a parish meeting. I was about to light a candle when one of the group jumped in: “Don’t light that, I’m choked with a cough and it’ll only start me off!” Fortunately there was a plastic battery-powered candle on the window nearby, which I placed in the centre of the table as a reminder of the divine presence.
Because once you have Faith, anything, real or artificial, can remind you of the True Light which enlightens all. There is a place for everything, used creatively – even if liturgists baulk!