Keeping the true spirit of Christmas alive

Fourth Sunday of Advent (A)

With the opening words of the Gospel – “this is how Jesus Christ came to be born” – our eyes are now firmly fixed on the celebration of Christmas.

The celebration of Christmas still holds a special place in our culture, despite increasing numbers of people claiming that they have no faith. Of course, their focus is not upon celebrating the birth of Christ, but rather Christmas as a time for various celebrations. Houses will be decked with lights and festive displays; people will exchange gifts and cards; on Christmas day families will gather for a special meal together; and there will be many end-of-year gatherings of work colleagues, members of organisations and wider circles of friends.

There is a spirit of joy and peace in the air. Christmas is meant to be a happy time. In our culture Christmas celebrates the virtues of family, of friends, of goodwill. People are also conscious of giving to those in need. Thus, the Christian heritage lingers on in our society. While many choose to reject Christianity, they still enjoy the celebration of the spirit of Christmas.

As we well know, the ‘reason for the season’ is the commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and son of Mary. The celebration of Christmas remains popular because there is something deeply human and appealing about it. And this is captured in no better way than in the depiction of the holy family in the stable of Bethlehem.

Today our cathedral is wonderfully decked out with decorations expressing the joy of Christmas. At this Mass we will bless our Christmas crib. We have encouraged you to bring your crib or figures from it to be blessed. The nativity scene is wonderfully evocative of the beauty, joy and peace of Christmas.

While, from a misplaced view of causing offence, city councils have discouraged shops and public places from displaying the Christmas crib, we will joyfully display them in our churches and in our homes. Let us ensure that we continue the beautiful family tradition of preparing a nativity scene in our homes in the days leading up to Christmas. Parents and grandparents have the opportunity of sharing with their children and grandchildren the wonder of the birth of the Saviour. It may be possible for Christmas carols to be played as a background as the family gathers to commemorate Christmas.

There are many simple ways in which we can preserve the true spirit of Christmas, even if our society shies away from its true meaning. So, let us keep alive our faith that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of our Saviour.

The tradition of erecting a Christmas crib has its origins in what St Francis did in the year 1223 in the little Italian village of Greccio. Coming to the village to take part in the midnight Mass St Francis asked a local man, John – Giovanni – to prepare a stable from wood and place straw in it and place it in front of the altar. On Christmas night when the people came to Mass they were moved by this simple depiction of the birth of their Saviour and as Thomas of Celano, St Francis’ biographer commented, “everyone went home with joy”.

The nativity scene, with Joseph, Mary and the child Jesus, never ceases to attract people.

On this coming Thursday, for the ninth time, we will hold “Light a Candle for Christmas” in the Elizabeth Street Mall. If you are in town make a point of visiting. The crib is the central focus of the event and choirs sing well known Christmas carols. We see people stop to listen and gaze upon the crib. Mothers bring their young children forward and as the child places the candle you can see the mother explaining the meaning of the scene before them.

The crib is a simple and yet attractive way in which the story of the birth of Christ is expressed and communicated.

Indeed, it was not just children who came forward to light a candle. Many people of all ages felt very comfortable in approaching the crib. In the nativity scene the profound mystery of the Incarnation is expressed to both the young and the old, the believer and those who do not, with a natural human beauty which is accessible to all.

The testimony of Scripture comes to life in a way that all people can embrace. This deeply human scene of a young couple without a place to stay, opens people to the spiritual world and to the great act of God who chose to embrace the human condition in such a manner. The humble circumstances, the vulnerability of this young poor couple, touch the human heart.

The scene of the birth of Christ evokes not only the wonder of the birth of a child, always a source of joy; it also speaks of virtues central to Christianity.  The nativity scene expresses virtues like poverty of spirit, humility, simplicity, joy and, of course, love. Above all it reveals the merciful heart of God towards humanity.

In the midst of the busyness and crass materialism of much of our society’s engagement with the Christmas season, the crib enables us to recall the real ‘reason for the season’. It draws us to the truth of what we are celebrating.

Today at this Mass we will bless the crib situated over at the side altar in the Cathedral. We will also bless any other cribs that have been brought to this Mass. May this blessing remind us that the tradition of erecting a Christmas crib is one of the most important means to profess our appreciation of what we celebrate at Christmas. Let every family give pride of place to the Christmas crib.

Archbishop Julian Porteous

Sunday, 18 December 2022

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