A story that is uncomfortable
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
The opening words of Handel’s Messiah are linked by many with the Christmas story. They are the pleading and plaintive words of the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah, repeated in the wilderness by Saint John the Baptist. But the Christmas story is not a comfortable story. Despite Christmas being wrapped and packaged in the tinsel and baubles of shopping centres and the annual hijacking of carols for commercialism and consumerism, the Christmas story is less the comfortable tale of profits and more about the uncomfortable call of the prophets.
Isaiah’s words at the opening of Handel’s oratorio come at a time of exile and conflict. He wonders who is going to comfort a distressed and dispossessed people in their dark time. These words are a reminder that the Gospel story is not for one people at one time of the year but is a challenge at every time and to all societies.
There is no Christmas story in either Saint Mark’s or Saint John’s Gospel. Instead, they begin with the voice of Saint John the Baptist crying in the wilderness. When the Christmas story is told in the two other Gospels, Saint Matthew and Saint Luke tell it in a way that challenges the priorities of every generation.
Saint Luke tells of a young couple over-burdened with taxes who are forced by a cruel and demanding government to leave their home so they can register for even more taxes. At the end their journey, they find themselves homeless, in a city where Saint Luke tells us “there was no place for them”. And the young Mary gives birth to her Christ Child in dank and dismal conditions that are familiar to the increasing number of homeless families seeking shelter on the streets throughout Ireland on this lean Christmas. The good news of that first Christmas is announced first not to the rich and the powerful in the comfortable places in the city, but to poor agrarian workers, labouring at night outside the city and so, in a real way, on the margins of respectable society.
Saint Matthew alone tells us that soon after the birth of their child this couple find themselves homeless again when they are forced into exile in neighbouring Egypt. Once more, the voice of an Old Testament prophet is heard in the Gospel narrative of Christmas, as the words of Jeremiah are quoted to describe the suffering brought down on innocent people and their children by a cruel and tyrannical ruler:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
Wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
She refused to be consoled because they are no more.
At the heart of the Christmas story is an uncomfortable, stark reminder that the birth of the Christ Child is supposed to be the beginning of good news for the poor and the marginalised, for the homeless and the displaced, for the migrants and the refugees, for the victims of racism, war and genocide.
It is a story that speaks compellingly to our society in Ireland today, and that challenges a world wracked with violence. How much we need to see Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child in every homeless person sleeping in doorways or seeking shelter on our streets this Christmas Eve. How much we need to hear the voice of Rachel weeping and wailing for her children in Ramah echoed in the voice of mothers weeping for their children in the Gaza Strip this year. It is a voice heard throughout the world from the weeping mothers of kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria to the wailing of mothers in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan.
Yet the voice of the angels to the poor and uneducated shepherds on the first Christmas Eve proclaimed God’s promise of peace, not in the future and not in heaven, but on earth and today. It is such a compelling promise that it silenced the guns in the trenches on the first Christmas in World War I. It is such a hopeful promise that instead of gunfire, the sounds heard on the battlefields 100 years ago this evening were voices singing in unison, in English and in German, “Silent night, holy night,” “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht”.
It is a promise that Isaiah shouts too, and that is repeated as the opening words of Handel’s Messiah continue:
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem,
and cry unto her,
that her warfare is accomplished,
that her iniquity is pardoned.
The true voice of Christmas is not one more sales pitch, one more effort to clinch a deal, one more hijacked image for a seasonal advertising campaign. Instead, it is the voice of the pregnant Mary before she sets out for Bethlehem, realising the birth of her child on that first Christmas night promises to scatter “the proud in the thoughts of their hearts”, to bring “down the powerful”, to fill “the hungry with good things”, and “to send the rich away empty”.