Readings: 1 John 1:1-4; Psalm 97; John 20:1-8
The apostles are the witnesses on whose testimony the Church is built. As witnesses, they speak of what they have seen, heard, and touched. This is what qualifies a person to be a witness: they have experienced something immediately, they have personal knowledge of it, and so they can speak about it with authority. Not only have we seen the Word of life, says John in his first letter, we have touched him with our hands. And now we speak about him so that you might have fellowship with us in our knowledge of the Word and experience the joy that comes with that fellowship.
The claim of these witnesses is unique. They say that they have seen, heard and touched the Word of life. In their experiences with Jesus of Nazareth they have seen the eternal life that was with the Father and has now been made visible in the world. 'Come and see' is a Christmas invitation. The shepherds respond to it and so too do the Magi. So also do all of us who make our way to the Christmas crib to pray and to worship the Child who has been born, to gaze upon him in the simplicity and wonder of his birth.
'Come and see' is the invitation of Jesus to the first disciples. After their years of formation with him - listening to his teaching, learning from him how to pray, seeing the miraculous things that happened through him, seeing especially the glory of his death and the evidence of his resurrection - through all of this the disciples who saw, heard and touched him came to believe that they had seen, heard and touched the Word of life. They came to believe that they had seen the eternal life made visible in Jesus of Nazareth.
Unless I see and touch, said doubting Thomas, I will not believe. So he did see and he was invited to touch. We remain forever dependent on the testimony of these first witnesses. The Church is not only one, holy and catholic, it is also apostolic. It is not just a spiritual phenomenon but an embodied human community spread out across time so that our fellowship with the apostles is a physical one. The Irish poet Sean O'Riordain has on his tombstone the epitaph 'all I am is a part of the body that is my people'. We can apply this to our fellowship in the Church: 'all I am is a part of the body of Christ that is my people'. I belong in the same body as John and Peter, as Mary Magdalen and John the Baptist, as Mary his mother and Elisabeth, and all who saw, and heard, and touched the Word of life during the course of his earthly existence.
We need not be afraid of considering the evidence for the Catholic faith. Evidence and the testimony of reliable witnesses: these are our ways to knowing what is true. Even if that evidence and testimony does not bring everybody to faith, it brings many people to believe. And there is no other route for us except to see and hear and touch the body of Christ alive in the world. Of course the Spirit moves our hearts to realise the deeper meaning in what we are seeing and hearing and touching: Thomas sees the man but believes in his Lord and God.
At the level of sentiment and emotion we feel again the draw of the Christian faith as we listen to the scripture readings and sing the songs of Christmas. Would that it were true that the Prince of Peace has been born for us. Would that it were true that the Child we honour is the Saviour of the world. Would that it were true that all captivity and oppression, all darkness and imprisonment, are dissolved and enlightened by his coming. Would that it were true ....
The witness of the apostles is that it is true. What we have seen and heard, what we have touched with our hands, is the Word of life, the eternal life that was with the Father and is now made visible. Would that we could translate this faith more effectively and more powerfully into the way we live, into our relationships, into the structures of our communities, into our service of the poor. For others now must also see and hear, they must touch and experience, if they are to have any hope of coming to faith. We are to be the witnesses, to give testimony by our words and by our lives, to the fellowship and joy that come with our faith in Christ.
The Christmas liturgy does not dwell on the sentimental aspect of the baby's birth. We are straight down to business, with the feast of Stephen, one kind of witness, and the feast of John, another kind of witness. May our faith grow strong through our celebration of Christmas this year so that we might, in the year to come, be more effective and more powerful instruments of Christ in the world. May we, by our words and the testimony of our lives, welcome those who wish to share our fellowship, attract those who wish to understand our joy, introduce to Christ those who hunger and thirst for the Word of life.