Presence of values that will triumph
Rev. Michael Burrows Church of Ireland Bishop of Cashel and Ossory EVERY CELEBRATION of Christmas has its political and economic context. It has been so since the beginning. So Luke's Gospel records that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem on their never to be forgotten journey as a result of 'a decree from Emperor Augustus' and ' while Quirinius was governor of Syria'. In due course, again according to Luke, the adult Jesus would burst upon the world for his three-year ministry of preaching, teaching and suffering 'in the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee and his brother Philip ruler of Ituraea and Lysanius ruler of Abilene'
These phrases are important not simply because of their antiquarian interest; they are much more than strings of almost forgotten names. Luke wants to make clear that God became one of us in Jesus at a specific historical moment and in a particular political context. Christianity is not a religion of otherworldly escapism. Its purpose is to make the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of the Lord, to demonstrate that the coming of Jesus affects the real world which politicians lead and which they often assume they control.
Every time the story of Christmas is told and retold it happens in a specific political and historical context. It brings the hope of peace in times of war, a recall to deeper priorities in times of prosperity, a message of God's empathy with the poor at times of shortage. And so it is that this year in Ireland we hear again the message of the angels and in heart and mind go to Bethlehem at a moment of economic meltdown and political uncertainty. Just a few years ago we proclaimed the Christmas Gospel in a context of considerable wealth and affluence. And – rightly – we expect the story of this season to illuminate our situation in both contexts.
So what has this Christmas to say to the hopeless, the unemployed, those demented by debt, those disillusioned by the plight of their own native land – and also indeed to our politicians who shortly will face the judgement of the electorate? I would be naïve indeed to attempt to answer that question in a short message, although I must say I never lose my childlike faith in the capacity of the spirit of Christmas to bring warmth and joy to the most impossible of predicaments. But, more than that, it is interesting I think to note that many of the politicians Luke mentions – Augustus, Quirinius, Tiberius... never would have heard of Jesus. Yet their names are recorded along with his because he, his values and his standards, transformed for ever the world they thought they controlled. One of those Luke mentions, Pontius Pilate, did have a particular face to face encounter with this Jesus and out of a culture of cruelty, utter inequality and crass flaunting of wealth on the part of a few he found himself asking Jesus, a mere prisoner before him ' What is truth?' At the end of the day the coming of Christmas remains something to celebrate even in the midst of the worst of times because it makes us face the truth about ourselves and our prevailing culture in the presence of someone of unique and total integrity.
There will be less money to spend this year and many reasons to be downcast. Yet, as well as its annual moment of genuine jollity in the depths of winter, Christmas brings hope because it makes those who think they control the world stand anew in the presence of values that will triumph and endure long after the politicians of a particular generation have been forgotten. At Christmas the political world, in respect for the baby of Bethlehem, holds a kind of annual truce from its normal squabbles and clashes, and lets the untarnished light of integrity and truth shine forth from the stable. Again for a day, bruised humanity sees a vision of what it should be capable of becoming.
This message is not meant to be a cheap attack on politicians – far from it. More than most they deserve our prayers and I have always striven to take a high view of the political vocation. But just as the first Christmas shed its light in an unpromising political context, so too must this one. So, daring to paraphrase Scripture, I would want to assert – ' In the year of grace 2010, when Mary McAleese was President of Ireland, Brian Cowen was Taoiseach and Mary Coughlan Tanaiste, the light of Christmas shone in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it'. And, in similar vein I would want to believe that when the figures I have just mentioned rest from their labours and like political generations before them are as forgotten save to historians as are Augustus, Tiberius, Quirinius, Herod, Philip and Lysanias, the story of Christmas will continue to be told to countless future generations, to grip their imaginations and above all to bring them light in their particular darkness.
Happy Christmas to all, citizens together of the land we love.