Christmas - Homily 5


Homily 5 - 2019

Christian believers sometimes lament that many of our contemporaries, while they celebrate Christmas, overlook the message and the meaning of why and what they celebrate. Santa replaces Christ. Sometimes I wonder if a similar lament could be made about myself – I overlook the meaning of the story and do not seriously live its message.

It is easy to think of Christmas as a wonderful feast for children. Yet Luke, who wrote the Gospel from which this evening’s passage was taken, did not write for children but for adults.

In writing of the infancy of Jesus, Luke did not intend to be taken literally. He was simply following the convention of historians of the time who wrote of the infancy of great leaders in glowing ways that foreshadowed their achievements as adults. Luke’s infancy narratives are like the overture to an opera. They rehearsed in graphic detail the major themes that would be addressed in the story of the leader’s adult life. Luke was telling us about the adult Jesus, not the infant Jesus.

What Luke wrote was dangerous. By the time he wrote, the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, the first of the Roman emperors, was well and truly dead – though he was quite alive and well at the time of Jesus’ birth. Within the Roman world, the world of Luke and his fellow Christian believers, Augustus was regarded as a god. Because of the peace that he had brought to the Empire, he had been universally honoured as its "saviour" and demanded to be addressed as “Lord”. An inscription discovered in a town called Priene in Western Turkey referred to Augustus’s birth as the “beginning of the good news [or gospel] for the world”.

Luke was saying “No!” to the universal official Roman view of Augustus. Not Augustus but Jesus was God, and the world’s “saviour”. It was Jesus’ birth that was the really “good news of great joy for all the people”. Jesus’ life and message were the way to true peace in the world, not the Roman peace, the ‘pax romana’ based on slavery and military conquest.

When the Royal Commission into clergy sexual abuse challenged the Church to a change of culture and made particular mention of clericalism, it seems to me it was asking nothing different of us than to take serious notice of the message of Jesus, as summed up so neatly in Luke’s picture of Jesus’ birth.

We could perhaps sum up the issues by looking at how we understand power – as embodied by Rome? or as embodied in Jesus? Rome’s power was coercive power. Over the centuries it seems the Church has been drawn more to that than to the power exercised in Jesus. Clericalism has flourished through its emphasis on threat, threat of punishment, of God’s punishment. It has tried to manipulate by its offer of rewards in heaven and the downgrading of personal conscience. It has stressed the uniqueness and superior dignity of bishops and clerics, and the respect and deference due to them. It has infantalised everyone by its vertical, hierarchical demands of submissiveness – bishops to Rome, priests to bishops, and the laity to priests.

That was not the way of Jesus. The power accessed and exercised by Jesus [as brought out so beautifully by Luke’s pictures of the infancy of Jesus], was the paradoxical power of powerlessness – the power of truth to convince, of beauty and joy to attract, of personal integrity to teach, of love to create and empower, of simplicity and transparency to reassure, and of poverty to celebrate it all. Luke’s was a truly inspired insight into the utter uniqueness of the adult Jesus’ approach to power, and showed a masterful capacity to encapsulate it in his stories of the infant Jesus.

Perhaps, in line with the final words with which Luke wound up the infancy stories, it is finally time for us all in the Church, like Jesus himself, to “grow in wisdom, maturity and graciousness in the sight of God and of everyone”.