See Commentary on (Midnight Luke 2:1-14 Dawn Luke 2:15-20 & Day John 1:1-18) in Luke 2:1-21 & John 1:1-5 John 1:16-18

Homily 1 - 2007

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to men who enjoy his favour.

There’s not much peace in Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, in Jesus’ own Land itself, or in Fiji, West Papua, even Palm Island. What went wrong?

And where is the ordinary person at, not just at the level of life’s general ups and downs but deep down? Are people in our society at peace?

What’s wrong? Perhaps we have trouble with God, or with the way God sees things.

As he tells his story, Luke makes a few significant emphases: Firstly, Jesus is born into poverty, in someone else’s house, his family obviously well down the list on society’s pecking order.

But it was OK with God. It didn’t faze God! It was irrelevant to God! Apparently, upper class/lower class, well off/not well off, don’t figure in God’s repertoire.

Secondly, those privileged to learn the wonder - the mystery - first were shepherds. Mary and Joseph were poor – shepherds were something else! In the mindset of the time, you could hardly get lower – right at the edges, thugs, non-conformists, ritually unclean – no way would they be allowed into the temple to worship. But, they could worship here OK.

It was OK with God. It didn’t faze God that angels let them in on the mystery first. 

I don’t know if Joseph and Mary felt uneasy when they showed up, but they didn’t show them the door.

Thirdly, if we haven’t got Luke’s point by now, he offers another clue. The lone angel gives way to a chorus who sing about peace to men who enjoy God’s favour.

Is that specifying people, narrowing the reach? or describing all people? Is it peace only to those - perhaps few - who are favoured by God? or Is it peace to people, all of whom enjoy God’s favour?

The first is hardly Good News – hardly worth singing about: business as usual – insiders/outsiders, welcome/unwelcome, us/them.

Jesus’ Good News is that God’s love is indiscriminate; God’s heart is big – God can love anyone. No one can do anything that could stop God loving. God’s love is unconditional. In fact, unconditional love is the only love deserving to be called love.

What went wrong? People don’t like things God’s way. People want to be special. People can only cope with insiders/outsiders, welcome/unwelcome, us/them. That’s why we fight – we always fight them, the "not us". We seem to love to categorise and to exclude.

Getting back to the crib... Should we make things at least look better? Should we sterilise the manger? Spray some air freshener? Dress the child in something suitable? Should we take the shepherds out of the crib? and, as for the wise men from the East, at least paint their faces white, straighten their noses, and remove any slant from their eyes.

There is enormous potential in the crib – but only if we can learn to be comfortable with less than perfect, with difference. As we become comfortable with that, as we learn to be comfortable indeed with ourselves, perhaps peace may spread to enwrap our earth.

Let’s take God’s way to heart so that Christmas can be really happy, and that everyone, whom God loves, can enjoy peace. And that’s my Christmas wish for you!

Homily 2 - 2010

It’s good to tell the stories to the children. Gather them around the crib – at home or in the Church. Let it be hands-on. Help them to say a prayer to Jesus, or Mary or Joseph. Children need to know the stories of the tribe. It helps them know who they are.

But they grow up – and so have you.   Then it’s time to take them more deeply into the Gospel – to cut loose from the way the story is constructed – and to encourage them to question: What was Luke hoping to tell us by the way he shaped his story – so different from Matthew? I’ll share a few things that get me thinking. 

The story started by saying that the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, took a census. The point of his census was to assess the capacity of the district to pay taxes. Caesar Augustus prided himself on the peace that he had brought to the Empire. So the context is power, wealth and peace - for some.

The story ended with another scenario – an angelic chorus promising peace to all who enjoy God’s favour.

So, there’s power – and power; and there’s peace; and they could hardly be more different. 

It seems to me that Luke constructed his story to redefine power, and to redefine peace, to say nothing of real wealth. In the process, he set about redefining God.

A lot of our prayers at Mass address God as Almighty God, All-powerful God. I think it is an unfortunate address, even though, from a certain point of view, it is true.

Caesar’s power was controlling power, that did not pull back from violence. God’s power is more the empowering energy of love – which is power, but doesn’t control. Even in the created world, I am not so sure that God pokes his nose into things to pull one string here, another string there. There is mystery in how God’s providence works.

And then there’s peace. Rome’s peace was enforced by the power of the sword. And God’s peace?

I was disappointed recently with Barack Obama’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize – as though to secure peace you have to go to war. That’s true only because people are not prepared to accept the powerlessness, the inconvenient price of love.

Jesus lived a life that deliberately tried to show that peace can only be secured by peaceful means. Remember his saying: I am the way, the truth and the life. The goal of fullness of life cannot be separated from the way to it. The way of Jesus secures the goal of peace – even if at a price.

Look at the crib – utter powerlessness, releasing the incredibly powerful energy of love – certainly at a price. Mary and Joseph pushed around, excluded; a totally dependent baby – and with God not pulling a string.

And, if we steal a glance at the last chapter of the Gospel, we see a Jesus brutalised, dehumanised and murdered because of his challenging life and message.

But, that’s not quite the last page.

Do we let Christmas redefine our ideas about God? It could be the way to a truly Happy Christmas – which keeps on going!

 Homily 3 - 2012

Here is a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

Where would you start looking? Well, certainly somewhere in the nearby town, Bethlehem.  But hardly in the "nice" end of the town – a gang of shepherds would not be welcome there.

It would have to be somewhere down the tougher end of town.  After all, the child would be wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a feed trough usually reserved for animals.  That was the normal deal in poor families - and Mary herself would have been used to that.

There was another sign, too, not for the original shepherds but for Luke's readers.  It was not called a sign, though it was clearly intended as such.  The first people to be informed of the birth of Jesus were not the local mayor, or the resident priest, or anyone who mattered – but shepherds, men right at rock-bottom of the social scale.

We are used to the story.  We might even think it's cute.  But what are the signs signifying?  What are they pointing to? There could be a lot of answers to that.  I'll suggest a few.  You might see some others.

They seem to be saying: God is not into the trappings of power.  Indeed, God seems to be open to being pushed around, profoundly inconvenienced and even exploited by those in power.  God seems to have a special interest in the nobodies, what we might call a "preferential option for the poor".  Nor is God into prestige, reputation or honour.  God is not fazed by chaos.

If we look at the other end of the child's life - his formal crucifixion - executed by order of the State under pressure from the religious authorities, aligned between a couple of bandits, the same agendas seem to be in operation there, too.  Put that way, the story doesn't seem quite so cute.

There are some perks in being disciples of Jesus, but there are some disturbing challenges as well.  It's a hard act to live up to.  Over the centuries, our Church has flirted with power and reputation and wealth – though, at least here in Australia, that might be beginning to unravel – and not by our deliberate choice, even if through our own fault.

I wonder if the Church will be a humbler, more approachable Church - more compassionate, more gender-inclusive and more aware as a result of the Royal Commission soon to get under way? Do we want to be a humbler Church?

A wonderful thing about Christmas is that it reveals God right in the middle of mess, totally committed to helping us to sort ourselves out from our mess.  It reveals a God who doesn't withdraw as a result of the world's sin, or the Church's sin, but who chooses to get totally involved.

In the child whose birth we celebrate today, we see God's way of engaging with the world's sin, the world's violence and our instinctive hostility.  It's the way of vulnerability, and of the determined avoidance of power, comfortable self-interest and prestige.

We might think twice about our own commitment to God's project, wondering if the price might be too high.  What on earth does it involve?  a radical re-imagining of Church?  It's easier to opt out, to let ourselves be disillusioned and to drift away.  And yet, there is something about the child - something about the crucified and disgraced Jesus - that touches a deeper chord within us, and resonates with what is our truest and best.  I can wonder about myself and my readiness to embrace the future.  But we don't have to have the answers.  We don't have to be certain about our personal resources.

I don't know how Mary felt.  I don't know how Joseph felt.  When others seemed to have got carried away by astonishment – going away on a real religious "high" – Mary and Joseph just seem to have kept silent.  Luke would simply say of Mary: she pondered these things in her heart.  What might that mean?  Whatever our answer, it might be a good, sobering, starting point, too, for us.

With all that swirling in my mind, I wish you all a truly Happy Christmas!

 Homily 4 - 2015

When I was down at the Royal Commission the week before last, I raised the question whether, if not all of us priests were celibate but some of us at least had raised our own families, we might have been more sensitive, as a group, to the children who were abused, and to what and how much they suffered. I also raised the issue whether, if women had shared in positions of management in the Church’s structures, the way we responded to the crisis might have been decidedly more effective. The power of the cultures and sub-cultures in which we are immersed [in the case of us priests the clerical culture we simply take for granted] can effect significantly how much we mature and certainly what we see and do not see. However, it is not abuse that I want to talk about tonight. Rather it is about the much broader issue of what we see and to not see, what we notice and what we do not, in general.

As Christians we do not just believe in God. We believe in God-with-us, Emmanuel, not moving around invisibly, as it were, but God alive and three-dimensional in creation, God, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, the God who even became human in Christ [whose birthday we choose to celebrate this night]. More than that! Because of Christ’s birth as man, and his subsequent death and resurrection to new life, we believe that each of us has been christened – christed! 

How can we talk about mystery? St Paul says we are the Body of Christ. St John’s Gospel says that our relationship to Christ is like that of branches to a vine. We live in Christ; Christ lives in us. We might not understand. But we can sit with it in silence, and quietly let ourselves be stunned. We can begin truly to see ourselves. We can begin truly to see others, each other – to see through the familiar mesmerising appearances to the reality.

Who saw the divinity in the Christ child? Did his mother? And, if she did, did she see it straightway? or did it take time for the truth to dawn, for her eyes to see? I read somewhere recently that the best context in which to find Christ is not monastic. It is domestic. There is no need to envy the Judean shepherds who, as Luke’s story went, saw the baby in the manger. We can learn to see him in each other – and we no not need to kid ourselves.

I shall read a poem to finish off. It was written by Gerard Manley Hopkins. His use of language is unusual, but his insights are wonderful:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.


I say móre: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —

Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men's faces.

As I look downs the Church, I do not see Christ playing in ten thousand places, but, if I truly open my eyes, I see him playing to the Father through the features of your faces.

Thank God for the Incarnation! And Happy Christmas to you all!


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”.