I always find that the season of Advent flies so fast. These past four weeks of preparation for Christmas are over in a flash with all the busyness and rushing about – visiting, writing cards, organising presents, going to events and doing so many things. So many of the events are incredibly worth-while and worthy and excellent in themselves. However, what I find is to appreciate the significance and meaning of them, amidst all the intensity of it all can be elusive and a challenge! Every year, I make a resolution to savour it and try and enter more and more into the reflective spirit of it with more focus. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes not and I am sure I am not alone in this!
Two Helpful items!
A couple of things were helpful that came across my path in the early days of Advent and have contributed to my understanding and appreciation of the mystery of what we celebrate on this night in the Incarnation and birth of Our Lord and Saviour on this Christmas night.
One was a reflection from someone whom I look towards often for guidance and inspiration. That person suggested that our ideal companions during Advent were Isaiah in his beautiful scripture reflections, John the Baptist who is so much to the fore during this time and most of all and key Mary, Mother of God as she journeyed in expectancy towards the birth of her son. So I kept with that Marian theme as much as I could and it was certainly a help!
Madonna and Child from the Great Artists
I love exploring different religious themes on social media and like to follow accounts dedicated to some of the great classic artists like El Greco, Raphael, Carravagio, Fra Angelico, Michael Angelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and many other great artists of our religious tradition. One of the images that we see again and again from these great experts and many other talented artists is the image of Mary and the new born infant, Jesus. We see variations and images of the Madonna and Child in galleries, on countless Christmas Cards, in cribs all over the world and in so many social media postings.
I found it most helpful this Advent time to literally try and reflect on what it must have been like for Mary on the first Christmas season and the reality and significance of what that little baby brought to her world and therefore ours!
An Eol Duit a Mhuire – Máirtín Ó Direáin
There is a poem, that has got much popular coverage this year by the great Aran Island native Máirtín Ó Diréain called Cuireadh do Mhuire, translated as An Invitation to Mary. It runs:
An eol duit, a Mhuire,
Cá rachair i mbliana
Ag iarraidh foscaidh
Dod leanbh Naofa,
Tráth bhfuil gach doras
Dúnta ina éadan
Ag fuath is uabhar
An chine daonna?
Do you know, O Mary,
Where you will go this year
To look for shelter
For your Holy Infant,
At a time when every door
Is shut in his face
By the hate and the pride
Of human kind?
Be pleased to accept
An invitation from me
To an island in the sea
Far away in the west:
There will be bright candles
Lighting in every window
And a turf fire
Blazing in the hearth.
Therein, in that succinct few verses lies the challenge of being a Christian a follower of the little baby whose arrival we joyfully herald, fete and celebrate today. The challenge of being a Christmas person, (just break up the word, Christ and Mass) a true Christian is that of love, generosity, kindness, justice, peace, thoughtfulness, unselfishness, reaching out to others, those who need help in any way. That is the mark of a genuinely religious, Christian, Christmas rooted person.
Christmas not a Noun – A verb!
At one of the Carol services I was at on Friday last, in Roscrea, the chaplain in the school made the interesting point that Christmas effectively is not a noun. It is a verb. Christmas. It is something we do rather that observe and admire from the outside. Christmas if it is to be true to itself, transforms, informs, reforms, utterly changes us into being better human beings, to being genuine children of God and people happy to rejoice in faith. All because of the life of the little baby, the Son of Mary, we welcome this night. Rinneadh feol den bhriathar. The word is this night made flesh, born of Mary, Mother of God!
Hardness of Heart?
In a world in which, in my opinion sadly, at times attitudes and barriers towards each other have hardened some-what over the past year and public discourse some feel has become more coarsened, judgemental and unforgiving –
we think specifically
- of the outrage against asylum seekers in some areas of our country,
- call for rejection and expulsion of people from public parties and movements when the accepted orthodoxy is not welcome and frowned upon
- the harshness of the debate on Brexit across the water and at home
- the polarisation of discussion on the care for the environment
then we look at Ó Diréain’s poem and we realise that the struggle of Mary and people like her were just as real as they are for us today, two millennia into the existence of Christianity.
So where to we go for enlightenment, for respite from it all?
Reflection on the Christ-Child
That is where I find the reflection on the other half of the Madonna and child part of the equation so enlightening and inspiring – the image of the Christ-child coming to us with such hope, enthusiasm and focused energy, that only the smile, the charm or the shrill cry of a new born baby might bring.
On the first day of Advent Pope Francis penned a beautiful reflection on various aspects of the nativity scene and 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 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.