Sunday, 25 December 2016

Christmas - Mass at Dawn

Readings: Isaiah 62:11-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:15-20

The shepherds came to find the infant Jesus. Yet sometimes one might wonder what we are doing to ourselves and our children with our image of 'Baby Jesus'. It's nice, warm and cuddly, but how true is it? If we collapse the Christmas story into a fuzzy blur of sentiment, of what real use is it to us, apart from being a welcome rest in the middle of winter, a kind of anaesthetic, an escape from harsh realities?

Preparation for Christmas this year began with the following warning from Luke's gospel: 'Watch yourselves, or your hearts will be coarsened with dissipation and drunkenness and the cares of life'. Perhaps drunkenness is not my way of becoming 'coarse of heart', but there are other ways. Sentimentality is surely another way of dulling our senses and numbing ourselves to the truth of our lives and of the world around us.

Jesus, Luke teaches us, wants us to be alert, sprightly, wide awake to all that is going on in us, around us, thorugh us. We are to be strong-hearted. It can be difficult to keep those two qualities together: softness and firmness, warmth and clear judgement, mercy and justice, compassion and strength. And yet the 'heart' is perhaps the best symbol for this combination of things.

The heart is a very tender, easily bruised, organ of the body. It must be mighty powerful at the same time to work away within us, day and night, year in and year out. I saw it in both my parents as they were dying, how strong their hearts were. The heart is also a symbol for the person, the kind of person we are in relation to ourselves, to others, and to God. What kind of heart do we have? How are we towards others? All through the bible there are warnings against becoming discouraged or weighed down in our hearts.

The heart is also a symbol of love. Again this can be sentimentalised although a colleague tells me that among the organs of the body the heart is the most selfless, its focus always on getting what is needed to the other parts of the organism, thinking last about itself. Hence it is a fitting symbol for love, for something generous and unselfish.

The birth of Jesus Christ means that the Son of God now lives with a human heart. He has come to set us right in our hearts. He has come to give us a new heart and a new spirit. He has come so that we might live with both a new tenderness and compassion, and a new clarity and strength.

There is a well-known text in the prophet Ezekiel, which the Dublin playwright Sean O'Casey quotes in June and the Paycock. It speaks of the time when God will change his people and transform them into something closer to his own heart. He will 'take out of our bodies the hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh instead'. So Ezekiel. 'Sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh!' So Juno in O'Casey's play. (Incidentally a striking synthesis in a few words of Irish Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart, Irish Protestant familiarity with the Old Testament, and an echo of W.B.Yeats' observation that too much suffering makes a stone of the heart.)

It is very striking that Ezekiel does not say that God will remove our hearts of flesh to give us spiritual hearts, or holy hearts, religious hearts, or supernatural hearts. It says that he will remove hearts that have become stone and give us hearts of felsh instead.

What can it mean? One thing it means is that we need God to reach us how to be human. That is the reason for our joy at Christmas time. Here is the cause of our hope. The new presence of God with his people is come about. The law is now to be written on our hearts. The love of God will be poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who comes from the Father and the Son.

In Jesus we see a man who is full of compassion and full of strength, a man who is full of justice and full of mercy, a man who is full of human feeling and full of divine truth. Sometimes justice and charity are set up in opposition to each other, and that is a very serious mistake. How can we be soft-hearted and hard-headed at the same time? How are we to react to poverty? to recurrent failure? to betrayal and disappointment? to anger and conflict? How are we to be strictly moral and full of understanding?

The answer to such questions comes not from books and lectures but from life and from practice. The one who loves as Jesus did knows how it is done. To follow Jesus means to be just, from the heart. The christian heart (meaning a heart which is according to the mind of Christ) is tender and strong. It is a compassionate and justice-making heart. It is a heart full of gentle feeling and strong anger.

This is what we celebrate at Christmas: not just the birth of a baby to comfort us in the depth of winter but the birth of a man whose love gives meaning and hope to the whole of our lives.

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