Homily for Christmas Eve, 2023 – Ennis Cathedral, 9.00 pm
This night 800 years ago the first crib as we know it was unveiled. The location was Greccio in Italy. It was the brain-Child of St. Francis who was returning home to Assisi from Rome after a meeting with the Pope who had just approved his new religious order that became known later as the Franciscans, in honour of the great Francis himself. St. Francis was wondering how he would make the wonderful story of the birth of our Saviour more real for people. Hence, the first model crib came into existence on this anniversary night and has now become part and parcel of our religious tradition every Christmas season.
What a truly significant occasion this is. By any standards 800 is something to shout about. Jubilee 800. Not every day we celebrate such a significant birthday. I took to the faithful companion, google this evening to see what the technical name is and I’m told the term is octocentenary. Happy octocentenary to all our Franciscan and Poor Clare colleagues this evening, here in Ennis and further afield!
Admirable Signum – Focus on the Manger
In recent times Pope Francis penned a beautiful reflection on various aspects of the nativity or crib scene. One of the items he reflected on was the meaning of the manger in the crib. The manger is the source of feeding for animals. It is where they get their energy, strength and life in the food therein.
The French verb to eat, by happy coincidence for food is manger, spelled in the very same way m-a-n-g-e-r.
The meaning of Bethlehem the location where Jesus was born is the Hebrew word meaning house of Bread.
Speaking of Bethlehem – how sad it continues to be on our news screen to see the ongoing conflict so close by in Gaza. One of the most poignant images of Christmas I saw today was a depiction of Christmas 2023 in Bethlehem with Jesus being born to Mary and Joseph in the midst of rubble and dust and destruction all round. Our earnest prayers continue for peace in the Holy Land.
Returning to the reflection on the Manger! The infant baby Jesus was placed in that first manger all those years ago in place of that same food for the animals.
That same baby as an adult some 33 years later offered himself up as a sacrifice for our sins on the cross and clearly indicated that he was the bread of life. Every time we come to Mass we receive this bread of life, through the scriptures, the presence of Christ in the community around us and in partaking of his body and blood in the Holy Mass.
This Christmas many of us will feast during the festive season with food that gives life to our bodies. With that we try to leave room for the spiritual sustenance that Jesus offers us as the bread of life, come down from heaven, made flesh, incarnate of Mary. The good news of our salvation, joy to the world, the greatest story ever told. That is the kernel, the Gospel, the good news, of our faith and hope and celebration this evening.
In the mean-time what do we do? How do we translate Christmas from being a noun to being a verb?
A poem by a lady called Christina Rossetti is a big help. It runs:
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part –
Yet what can I give Him?
Give my heart.
Like Mary, we ponder the coming of the Christ-child in our heart and then give our hearts to it by being people worthy of this great love : from God to us and from us to God in return, because Emanuel, God is with us, in human flesh, in total solidarity with us, in all things but sin.
Together, we rejoice on this Holy Night as we give our hearts to put flesh on this great legacy that we have received as a result of that first Christmas night over 2000 years ago in the stable in Bethlehem and becomes real every time we celebrate Mass, the bread of life, food for the soul, nourishment for eternal life made possible because of the Incarnation that we celebrate on this night.