Christmas story and its message is for everyone

There are three celebrities at the heart of our culture - Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Pope Francis: making us aware that we have three incredible celebrities, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, at the heart of our culture. Photograph: Reuters

Pope Francis: making us aware that we have three incredible celebrities, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, at the heart of our culture. Photograph: Reuters


With the bailout “troika” gone, we are about to welcome another “troika”, this time, however, a threesome whose narrative will be celebrated, retold warmly and acclaimed in song. The story of Jesus, Mary and Joseph will be centre stage for many of us at least for some short moment during the festivities.

It’s good to have the Christmas season. It reveals to us a hunger, shared the world over, for being a family. The original Holy Family somehow stands for the calling of each individual family, as well as that of a people and all of humanity to be a family.

There’s a strange paradox that while we admire and look to celebrity stars with increasing passion, we easily forget how deeply the narrative of Jesus, Mary and Joseph has shaped Ireland and all of Europe. In the 13th century, at a time of major social and economic transition, Francis of Assisi developed the Christmas crib as a way of reminding Europe of these central figures. It was a simple concept; a simple scene but full of significance. In the centuries that followed, the Franciscan charism inspired many developments in economics and art, politics and literature.

Profound message
If St Francis found his way to convey the profound message of Christianity with the crib, in the present day, the Time magazine’s Person of the Year, Pope Francis, is doing something similar, making us aware that we have three incredible celebrities, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, at the heart of our culture, who appeal to everyone, believers and non-believers.

Jesus’s mercy and tenderness were well in evidence in the pope’s embrace a few weeks ago of Vincio Riva, a severely disfigured man suffering from a rare disease that causes painful tumours to grow throughout the body.

Afterwards, Riva said: “The thing that struck me most is that he didn’t think twice about whether or not to hug me . . . I’m not contagious, but he didn’t know that. He just did it: he caressed me all over my face, and as he did I felt only love.”

The pope’s homily at the inaugural Mass of his papacy was dedicated to St Joseph as “protector”, revealing the human vocation to protect the whole of creation, to protect each person, especially the poorest, to protect ourselves. Francis’s frequent and touching visits to the Mary Major Basilica in Rome have been well reported.

The pope’s love of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is far from mere celebrity cult or devotion. In an interview within the past few days, the pope described how Christmas speaks of tenderness and hope as dimensions to be lived: “When God meets us he tells us two things. The first thing he says is: have hope. God always opens doors, he never closes them. He is the father who opens doors for us. The second thing he says is: don’t be afraid of tenderness.”

In response to a letter from Eugenio Scalfari, a non-believer and former editor of the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, Pope Francis wrote: “First of all, you ask if the God of the Christians forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith. Given that – and this is fundamental – God’s mercy has no limits if the person who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, then the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience.”

“In fact, listening and obeying it, means deciding about what is perceived to be good or to be evil. The goodness or the wickedness of our behaviour depends on this decision.”

Scalfari described the deep emotion he experienced in receiving the pope’s letter: “An openness so broad to modern and secular culture, such a profound vision of conscience and its autonomy has never been experienced up to now from the chair of St Peter . . . The pope does me the honour of wishing to make a journey along with me. I would be delighted to do this. So I wish a long life and affectionate brotherhood with Francis, Bishop of Rome and head of a church that also is involved in the struggle between good and evil.”

Yes, Pope Francis has brought home to the world this year how the Christmas story, with its message of dialogue and mercy, truth and tenderness, is for everyone.

Brendan Leahy is Bishop of Limerick and co-editor of Treasures of Irish Christianity Volume II: A People of the Word (Veritas, 2013)