2019 Grateful 2: Lesson from the Bishop

The pessimist in me says that it had to happen sometime. My love affair with my Hungarian village was a little too good to be true. It would eventually disappoint.

Going into mass a couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to see a new addition to the church grounds – a large crib. This is new. We didn’t have it last year. But on closer inspection, I noticed that the Baby Jesus was already firmly ensconced. Seriously? In Catholic Hungary? Didn’t they know that He doesn’t make His appearance until Christmas Day?

Later in the week, I was in Budapest, wandering down by the Town Hall, and saw that there, too, the Baby Jesus was holding court, a tad prematurely. Since then, I’ve spent far too much time bemoaning the dilution of my religion and the inability of those with crib power to follow the story to the letter.

At home in the village in Ireland this week, I went to Mass. Going to my seat, I picked up a copy of the Bishop’s Christmas message. In it was a lesson I needed to learn.

“There is a signpost on the road from Baltinglass to Blessington. It simply reads ‘Manger’. As you enter Kilkenny from Carlow, one of the early roundabouts you encounter is the Hebron Road Roundabout. And, of course, on the road from Carlow to Athy, much closer to Carlow, is Jerusalem.

In these days, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, there is for me a very clear realisation that we live on holy ground. This is our holy land. This is our holy place. Our challenge is to create our own manger because Christ continues to be born amongst us. Sometimes we miss the signs; we are blind to the gift of His presence.

Pope Francis wrote in his most recent apostolic letter Admirabile Signum on the meaning and the importance of the nativitivy scene. He signed the letter in Greccio, purposefully choosing the mountain village where St Francis of Assisi created the first crib scene in 1223. We all love our cribs. [Each] crib in our churches, our schools, our town squares, our homes, is of itself a living gospel rising up from the pages of the scripture.

We might debate when the different characters enter the nativity story, and maybe, more importantly, when they are to leave, but we can never underestimate the power of the gospel coming from the crib, any crib. Returning to Pope Francis, he says: From the manger, Jesus proclaims, in a meek yet powerful way, the need for sharing with the poor as the path to a more human and fraternal world in which no one is excluded or marginalised.

And that’s our challenge: to look on the manger, to spend time at our crib, wherever that is, and see the families who are homeless, the families who are refugees, the families who are forgotten by society, and simply ask ourselves is there anyone we are forgetting, excluding, or leaving behind in these more prosperous times.

The manger challenges us, whether it is empty or full; the crib, or creche as Pope Francis calls it, challenges us whether it exactly reflects the authentic narrative of the first Christmas story. Christ seems to be telling all of us, it is not the Christmas story we need to fully unpack; it is how we live the Christmas story in our lives, in our world, in our parishes, in our homes. […]”

Therein the lesson for which I’m grateful. I’ve been a little too busy being a pedant and in my pedantry, I lost sight of the spirit of it all. With so many homeless sleeping on our streets, with so many refugees knocking on our doors, with so many people falling through the cracks of society, we would do well to be a little more mindful this Christmas, and carry this Christmas mindfulness into next year.

The origins of the Grateful series.


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3 Responses

  1. I’m rather a lop-sided Christian. The son of not specially religious parents, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy over the years as a member of Anglican church and cathedral choirs, with the result that I’m quite happy with the cultural aspects of our religion – musical, literary and architectural – without being entirely convinced of the spiritual side. At Christmas I see a Jewish boy being born supposedly as the son of God – not a Jewish thing at all, purely Hellenistic – in circumstances of alleged dire poverty. Jesus’ (earthly) father Joseph was a wood-worker: do you know an impoverished carpenter or cabinet-maker? Those are skilled trades – for all we know, the family may have been quite well off. Jesus was born, we’re told, “in a stable” simply because better could not be found as the result of over-demand. The New Testament doesn’t say so – it’s often short on hard facts, and in any case was written long after the event by persons who were not present – but it’s easy to imagine Mary (ill-advised to travel in her condition, surely) going into labour and being quite desperate for a hole to go to. Nothing very sentimental about it, never mind stars and shepherds and Wise Men – I can never help wondering what became of all that gold, myrrh and frankincense?? So call me a cynic, do, because I am. Many great men have done a lot of good under the aegis of both Judaism and Christianity – Islam too – and, alas, vice versa, but I wish I could remember which medieval pope it was who said “This Jesus-myth has served us well.”

    1. From what I gather: Although the quote is commonly attributed without source documentation to Pope Leo X, it is believed to have originated in a satirical piece titled “The Pageant of the Popes” by a Protestant controversialist named John Bale (1495–1563). Bale wrote: “For on a time when a Cardinall Bembus did move a question out of the Gospell, the Pope gave him a very contemptuous answer saying: ‘All ages can testifie enough howe profitable that fable of Christe hath ben to us and our companie.’”

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