‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – On them light has shined.’ (Is. 9: 2)
We saw it from afar as we journeyed in the Land called Holy. In the darkness it was illuminated by light and in the day it declared its presence. The Wall. Some call it the Security Wall, others the Wall of Separation. Many consider it to be the true ‘Wailing Wall’. The Wall that strides across hills and through olive groves, that smashed its way through villages and embraces even the little town of Bethlehem.
Just over a month ago a group of us – pilgrims in the footsteps of Christ – were driven to the village of Bethany, the place where Mary and Martha lived and where Jesus wept over the death of his friend, Lazarus, to stand before this monstrous symbol of terror, anger and imprisonment. We stood before its 12 metre high slabs and read the messages that adorn it, painted by artists from around the world who have expressed their feelings about this statement in concrete of humanity’s fear of the other. Most poignantly of all was one by the street artist, Banksy: a dove dressed in a bullet-proof vest raising its wings in surrender. And we cried for the pain and suffering to which all this witnessed. Condemned by the International Court of Justice sitting in the Hague, the Wall surrounding the little town of Bethlehem – or ‘Santa’s Ghetto’ as some now call it – provides the background to the carols we sing about this place. Silent Night, Holy Night.
FOR A CHILD IS BORN TO US
Yet it is to such people that Isaiah prophesied: those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them the light has dawned … For a child has been born for us, a son given to us. And so we moved on from that place of separation to the place of inclusion – the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We, together with hundreds of others, waited to do what the shepherds had done two millennia ago. To worship at the place of the birth of the Prince of Peace. Already we had discovered that Jesus was born in the midst of a nation occupied by foreign forces in a cave in the Bethlehem hillside where animals were kept for safety. And, as we descended into the cave beneath the basilica to kiss the small silver star set beneath the altar of the Nativity where the vastness of divine eternity incarnated itself in human form, we sang the carol which speaks of that cordoned-off town of Bethlehem with fresh understanding. For, in these dark streets shines the hopes and fears of all the years met here tonight.
LEAPING OVER THE WALL
I guess that since man first walked the earth walls to separate and secure have been erected. Walls in Belfast and Berlin have sought to do that and, in the process, have created ghettos, prisons within which lie fear. And fear, which feeds on itself, cannot be the basis for our ultimate security. We seek to exclude. God seeks to include. We fear and demonise; God looks down and has compassion on our foolish ways. Yet the walls of separation do not reach to heaven.
And so it was that God overcame the barriers we had erected by revealing himself through the powerlessness of a baby born in a cave to a young, unmarried mother, in a remote village, in an occupied country.
THE BIRTH OF A BABY
A child is the promise of new life for the world. And this child, this Holy Babe, is the fulfilment of God’s eternal promise: ‘a child will be born for you, a son given to you and dominion will be laid on his shoulders’. For ‘in him was life, and that life was the light of the world.’ (Jn. 1:4)
So forget the tinsel and fripperies of Christmass – they are but the icing on the cake – and know that this child cries out to you to let down your walls and let him in. He invites us to receive him into our arms and into our lives tonight.
RECOGNISING GOD’S GIFT
His love seeks to embrace us, and seeks a way for us to take him to ourselves, to enable him to live. The choice is ours (though God has made the first move). He is the divine stranger who comes knocking at the door of our hearts seeking our hospitality. Will we open them to him this night? Or are we afraid? The innkeeper said, “No room!” and God’s gift of life was first welcomed by shepherds who no one else bothered with.
So the shepherds were drawn to the innocence of a baby and saw, reflected in his eyes, their own lives. Saw the hopes and the fears. And saw that God had a promise for them: ‘In him is life, and that life is the light of the world’. This baby is as unique as any baby: his vulnerability holds the source of life for all. He is the gift of the ages, that gift promised by the prophets: ‘a child will be born for you, a son given to you’.
But, the fact is, tonight God has chosen to come and be intimate with us. He wants to overcome our walls – to embrace us. To have all our hopes and fears held by Him. Our hate and anger, bitterness, envy and all the rest. Our stories of hurt and failure, for being fully human is about owning the complexity of our nature. And God saw all that he had made and said – ‘I made you and I love you for, in the end I know you are good’.
So tonight we gather to pause for a moment on the edge of our festivities and remember why we’re doing this. Because God has spoken a Word which has been heard in spite of all the barriers we erect. A Word that assures us that the world can be made new through this child born for us, this son given to us. For this Word has been made flesh and dwells among us.
And here at this altar, as at every altar whenever Mass is celebrated, we proclaim that God’s love is present. ‘This is my body, this is my blood, given for you – shed for you’. And as you and I like the shepherds of old kneel before this mystery; as we reach out our hands and make another cradle to hold the sacred babe, we become Bethlehem (which means the House of Bread). And we affirm that nothing in heaven or on earth, no walls or prisons, no hatreds or fears, can separate us from the Love of God made known this night in Jesus.